hello, hearters :)

this is somewhere not-quite-but-almost near the end of my novel EMERALD.

if you want to go back here's something from the beginning:

and here's a piece from near the end of the earlier part (if that's not too confusing):

ready?

here we go:

EMERALD

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There was a day – perhaps not so long ago, or maybe as far back as her thirteenth year – when Emerald Katz (now 28) took a wrong turning. It had ceased to matter what year it was, because she forgot to make any plans for this one and, to be honest, she had no real hopes and dreams for the following year either. When Emerald Katz reached this point it was a Thursday and not an auspicious Thursday.

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She had failed to show up at the newspaper where she worked until far too late in the morning to be considered a good member of staff.

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Her editor had threatened (yet again) to fire her. But (once more) Emerald had pulled out the goods and delivered a great story just minutes before deadline.

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They needed a twenty-something female viewpoint in a sea of men on the paper and Emerald knew it.

Unfortunately this Thursday was one of those days where she realized there were plenty of thirty-somethings on the paper and, in (she had to think about this for a quite a while) two years, she would not be unique. In fact she would be clearly dispensable.

The Assignment

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And now she was on the one o’clock train to Charstleymead to interview a famously haughty Shakespearean actor who was appearing in – she opened up the cheap plastic folder that the Arts Editor had thrust into her hand as she left the newspaper building – “Private Lives” by Noel Coward at the Devonshire Theatre.

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Noel Coward

She shrunk back in her scratchy British Rail seat and sighed.

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It had been many years since Emerald Katz had been to Charstleymead.

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As the Sussex fields rolled by outside the train window she couldn't remember how many years it had been. But she recalled seeing “Private Lives'' at a seminal point in her teenage years. When was that?

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She pulled out a pen and started to make notes.

The Interview

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Later on that afternoon, Emerald looked at her watch discreetly. The haughty Shakespearean actor was drawing his metaphor to a rousing and vowel-rich conclusion.

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Dutifully, even though he said this quote in most of his profiles contained in the Arts Editor’s plastic folder, she wrote it down and checked that the tape was still recording. “I’m an optimist. I see a swallow, and I think spring is here.”

It was indeed beautiful. And his voice had a delicious tremor to add pathos to the word swallow (which he said because it was vaguely naughty yet innocent all at the same time, appealing to so many different sectors of his audience). She got up and shook his hand and thanked him.

“Are we finished?” he said, with a raised eyebrow, somewhat petulantly.

She turned from the doorway, her hand already outstretched to close the door gently behind her.

“You know,” she said, deciding to be completely honest to another human being for the first time in many years. “Your press agent moved me up and my train doesn’t leave for London for several hours and, well,”.

She paused.

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“I have somewhere to go. I have not been in Charstleymead for many years and, well, there is something I have to see. I need to understand what has happened.”

“To what?” he asked, “happened to what – or whom?”

But she had left.

Going back.

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Emerald asked the taxi to stop at the top of the road by the church.

She half-expected to see a crocodile of blue coated, burgundy beret wearing schoolgirls but not a soul was around at six o’clock in Old Town, Charstleymead.

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Everyone must be home from work or school and having their dinner with their families. She wanted to put her head inside the door of the church, just to see if it had gone all high church with incense and a groovy vicar but the door was bolted shut. A sign said the church was now a homeless drop-in center and not open again until the morning.

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She had not expected anything to have changed here of all places – she hoisted her bag back on to her shoulder and walked to the top of the lane.

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Emerald stopped at the sweet shop. It had not changed one bit. Above the old-fashioned till were the glass jars of individually wrapped toffees in greaseproof paper with irregular twists at each end, some slightly open now to reveal a gooey vanilla sweet, probably long past its sell-by date.

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She lingered over the counter on the left as you walked in the shop. Sweets from her childhood in a row: Curly Wurlys, Liquorice Dabs, Mars Bars and Cadburys Caramel.

Everything looked disappointingly smaller, as if the past was now subject to portion control.

In a moment of defiance, Emerald bought a packet of Gitanes from the bored teenager behind the till.

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don't smoke - it's hell to quit.

Emerald wanted to ask her if the girls from Harcourt Hall still had secret letters delivered to the post office boxes in the back room.

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She wanted to ask if she could look at the back room; she could not remember which box had been Henry’s but she felt a need, an urge, to reconnect with the two of them ----

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---- their ghosts, still standing there with baited breath, key in the lock, seeing if anyone had written back to them from London or New York City ---

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--- or beyond, in the magical land of grown-ups and Martinis and 5-star hotels and movie openings.

Emerald could not remember the last time she had written a letter to anyone or been beside herself with excitement at getting one back.

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Only checks and bills and final demands and misdirected letters came by post now. Slid under the door as the letterbox in the center of her door was jammed shut from the last time there was a police raid on the building.

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The back room door was closed anyway and the bored teen looked like she wanted to get back to her telephone conversation in peace so Emerald left and stood just outside the door and lit her cigarette. It was stale.

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Of course it was, she thought. Not many tourists or pretentious people require French cigarettes here in Old Town, Charstleymead, too far from the Pier or the front or the Devonshire Park Theatre for tourists to come by. Probably been on the sweet shop shelf for a long time she realized and threw the pack into the next wire bin on the corner. She had a pack of Camels in her bag but the thrill of buying forbidden merchandise here at the sweet shop was too delightful to resist.

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She suddenly felt really sad. This trip down memory lane was not all she had expected. No one was going to tell a twenty-eight year old that she could not smoke on the street here. She was not thirteen and in uniform anymore, it seemed.

Chewing her bottom lip, waiting at the traffic lights, Emerald wondered if life had been so much easier when someone was telling her what she could and could not do. Was life with rules, even Harcourt Hall outmoded forms of regulations, easier than none at all? Sure, people shouted at her when she did not show up for work. But there were never any consequences for her behavior these days.

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She automatically waited for the lights to change. Nobody would have given her a nuisance mark for crossing the street. Or an order mark for smoking, or, come to think of it, a prize for Latin and a Bourbon cheer for winning something during the Charstleymead Festival and bringing glory to the house. Pity, really. She would have liked someone to tell her everything was going to be okay.

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Summerhill Lane stretched down to Cherrytree and the golf course and, through the trees, she knew, if you ran, you would end up at the seafront pretty soon after that.

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Either side of Summerhill the big houses loomed behind their neat hedges and low wooden gates that would probably squeak a little on their hinges if she opened the small metal catch.

Nothing had changed here. The old fire engine red telephone box was outside the house covered in ivy and had the Queen’s initials on it, just like the post box outside the house next door with the pale pink rose bushes. How odd that the Queen still owned all the telephone and post boxes in England.

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After the Welsh Independence movement, Emerald wondered if the Queen still owned the telephone boxes there, near the cottage she stayed in that Easter and overdosed. She had forgotten about taking the sedatives.

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All the pain of being thirteen came flooding back.

“So much for the happiest days of my life,” she said out loud to the shock of the lady walking past in tweeds with her two Jack Russell dogs.

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Half-wondering whether to call ahead, Emerald stood watching the woman walk up the lane. How old was the lady in tweeds? Had she always lived here? Did she have anything to do with Harcourt Hall? When you show up after more than a decade away, are you meant to call? But who would you call? Surely none of the staff would still be there from her day.

And what would she say anyway? She had not gone to the Centennial or sports days or speech days. Since leaving university, she had lived in London, mostly. It was over an hour on the train, not much longer than that, with one change at Lewes.

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Usually enough time to have a cup of tea at the little café on Platform four. It was not far and yet she had never come back, not once.

She was not even supposed to be here now. But the Arts Editor had been frantic. His regular theatre critic had gone AWOL after a first night at The Garrick and so they sent Emerald. It was not until she looked at the press release that she saw it was “Private Lives” by Noel Coward. It felt like a sign.

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Not that Emerald thought she believed in signs, not real ones. She felt too old and bruised by life to have much interest beyond keeping her job at this point. Perhaps the profile of the actor might help. Perhaps showing up every day like everyone else would help too, said a voice in her head that she had ignored for too many years to care that it was still there.

When you know a road so well, your feet lead the way. Emerald was musing inside her head and then realized she was there, outside the Annex where the Upper V dormitory was, across from The Manor where the Sixth Form girls lived.

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But both houses were different, somehow. Cleaner – lived in. Emerald stared across the road at The Annex as a man, holding a small boy, came out of the front door, car keys in hand. Men! Since when were men allowed to visit The Annex? Then a woman came to wait in the doorway with a child on her hip.

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“Wave to daddy,” the woman said.

With a sinking heart Emerald realized Harcourt Hall must have sold The Annex. It was obviously a family home now. And parked outside the Annex was a brand new BMW; not the sort of car a spinster teacher at Harcourt Hall would drive.

She wanted to run up Summerhill Lane without taking a breath. Some part of her knew what she was about to see – or, rather, not see. But curiosity propelled her forward.

What happened next.

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At the gates to the back driveway where her cousin Dominic had dropped her off that first day, Emerald paused, putting her hand on the black railings near the wall where she and Henry had escaped that night they ran away to the pop concert in London. She did not look left or right, just straight ahead.

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The outhouse where the caretaker would collect your trunk at the beginning of each term was in need of repair. Paint peeling, weeds growing around the door. Her hands were clenched around the bars and, as she unfurled her fingers like removing a toy from a toddler, one by one, the smell of rusted iron made her retch. She realized she had nothing to remove the stain from her fingers.

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“Still not the sort of girl – unlike Myrtle – who would carry a moist wipe then,” she said out loud to the gates as if they remembered her.

It was the first time she had remembered Myrtle for years, and then the other names came flooding into her head: Jemima, Alice, Eglantine, Sarah 1 – 11 and 111 – and Henry. She put her hand over her face and wanted to cry.

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She had forgotten about Henry. How could she have not remembered Henry? Why had they lost touch? Which one of them had stopped calling first? She could not recall.

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“I wonder if Myrtle found her prince,” she said to the railings. She wondered about looking her up in the phone book in the phone box at the top of the lane. But none of them, Myrtle especially, would have kept their maiden names, merging into a new, married identity. Even if they were still in Charstleymead, or out in the wider Sussex County, there would be no way of finding them.

Suddenly Emerald realized she was at the main entrance: the front gates that no pupil ever used during her time at Harcourt Hall, being reserved for adults; parents, staff and visiting dignitaries. You could tell the secret thrill felt by Old Girls when they came back for Sports Day and were allowed to enter the school via the main driveway.

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Just inside the gravel path was the old cherry blossom tree; the same tree where many Old Girls would choose to be photographed with their new husbands after getting married in the church at the top of the road.

Emerald never understood why people would come back to Charstleymead to be married when they could elope to Capri.

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Capri - wouldn't you?

But that was why, she remembered Myrtle sneering, it was unlikely Emerald would get married or, with her lack of school spirit, become a house or school prefect. Emerald did not want to be a prefect. And the Emerald who stood by the main cherry blossom tree had changed little since those days. The only difference was she was fifteen years older and had fulfilled Myrtle’s predictions – she had not become a house, or school, prefect at Harcourt Hall – nor had she recorded a blushingly new marital status under the cherry blossom.

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While she was having an internal argument with Myrtle, Emerald failed to grasp what was before her. Or, rather, what was not before her.

Harcourt Hall was gone.
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Completely disappeared.

She had to focus her eyes several times.

Harcourt Hall had been razed to the ground.

The outhouse was there, the New Gym and the stable block of classrooms by the tennis courts - all there but the manor house was gone. What had happened? A fire – or bankruptcy – and why had no one told me?

The Realization....

But nobody from those days would have known how to reach E.R. Katz. She had not kept in touch with anyone and certainly did not update the alumnae communications office with her news. She had moved every year in the past decade, leaving a messy wake of unpaid bills, creditors’ demands and ex lovers in her path without a forwarding address.

And when the Aunts had died and Matthew and Jane followed Dominic to Australia, there was no one left to tell. She had not expected this to happen. Everything else in her life could be impermanent and drifting – but Harcourt Hall was meant to prevail.

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All her resentments against Harcourt Hall’s unwillingness to admit there was no longer a British Empire evaporated.

She had felt the same way about Harcourt Hall and now, it too, was gone.
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If the Queen still awarded the New Year’s Honors List, creating Dames and Commanders of the British Empire then surely Harcourt Hall would still be awarding the Neatness Prize to pimply girls destined to be daughters of the empire.

There was a stone plaque set into the old wall by what used to be the front entrance. It said that Harcourt Hall had been on this site for over a hundred and fifty years – until last June.

Last June – Emerald tried to remember what had happened to her last June but she could not remember anything momentous. In fact, she started to cry. Last June had been the same as the June before and the June before that. Not good.

What had happened to the thirteen year old Emerald Katz who knew she was destined for a big life?

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Emerald realized her current life was shrinking around her at a terrifying rate. She put both her hands flat on the stone plaque feeling the carved masonry spell out Harcourt Hall and its dates beneath her fingers.

“What went wrong? When did it go wrong? And how can I stop this destruction? I want to be her again; I want to be the thirteen year old that wanted the world.”

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She had no idea she still believed in magic. As if expecting the stone to transport her back, as if by closing her eyes and wishing it so hard that her heart felt it might break again, she could wake up in the Upper IV dormitory upstairs -----

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------ tucked in tightly by matron under thick white cotton sheets.

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A faint smell of lavender from the linen water used to smooth out the pillowcases at the local laundry service.

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The casement windows open to the elements, birds singing outside and the clatter of kitchen staff making frying sausages and making endless rounds of buttered toast.

But it wasn't possible.

She knew that – even if she wished and wished and wished so hard.

There was no way of returning. But the thought of returning to London, to her horrible cold life in that terrifying building, was too much to bear.

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So Emerald decided to do something else - and made a plan.
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to be continued.....

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(well, it's all written - but this is enough here for now)

more stories here: