I smoothed my blouse down again; watching my hands glide over the material in the mirror, forcing myself to contend with my reflection for a scant few seconds so I could check that the appearance I had been aiming for had worked. It had, I thought. I looked perfectly respectable. There was no hint of the macabre about me in my green silk ankle-length bloomers, paired with a complementing pale gold blouse, heeled shoes and a headband. Though the colour did bring out my eyes, which was perhaps not such a good idea. Green eyes had bad things associated with them. Envy, and I recalled from history lessons at school that in medieval times they had been thought to indicate a witch. Not to mention the fact that being rare, they made me distinctive in a way I far from wanted. They were memorable, unusual. The sight of them might make me stick in people's minds.
Still, I could do nothing to change my appearance as far as my eyes, as much as I would have liked to. Even with my dark brown hair I looked far too much like my mother for comfort, and what made such a thing worse was how I had rejoiced in such a thing after her death when I was twelve, when I had idolised her in my memory. I had the Aurenière looks to a tee, everybody had always said, and it was true. I looked a great deal like my maternal grandmother, too, and many ancestors before her. I had the hair that tended to be curly or wavy, no matter what shade it was - and from the late nineteenth century lighter shades of brown, or blonde, were commonplace - and piercing, light-coloured eyes that stared so vividly out of portraits of my relatives, whether they be blue or grey or green, as mine were.
Glancing at the clock on the wall of my bedroom, I grimaced. I had to go or I would be late. What a dreadful impression that would make, and it was not the sort of thing she would appreciate at all. Not at all the sort of thing that was compatible with who I was trying to be now.
It only took ten minutes for me to walk from Bridemoor to the imposing Baroque structure of St Clement's College on Threadneedle Street. The friendly elderly gentleman on duty smiled at me as I passed through the Porter's Lodge at the front, clearly remembering me from the times I had visited a couple of people from some of my classes who also lived there. They resided in the east building, however, and then I headed to the south, to room number ninety-three on the second floor.
She opened the door not long after I had knocked, smiling prettily with a slight blush in her cheeks. "Evening, Bella!" she said. "You're early."
"I hope not so much so that I have interrupted you," I apologised politely. Bella Fitzaren was always polite and such a characteristic was becoming a reflex by then. "How are you this evening, Effemie?"
"Very well," she said, nodding. She was blushing still, even a little deeper, as she continued to smile at me. "You look nice."
"Thank you. So do you." She did, in a fitted blue dress that was pleasing to the eye, if obviously cheap.
I shook myself as the crass thoughts crossed my mind. No, no, no! That was not the sort of thing I was supposed to be thinking. Bella Fitzaren was not judgemental. She did not think less of others for not having as much as she always had; did not try to change people. She accepted them for who they were, unconditionally. Much as Effemie did, from what I had seen so far.
"I am ready to go, actually, if you want to leave now," she said.
I nodded. "Why not. We can walk leisurely to the restaurant instead of hurrying. Take in London as we go."
She gave me another smile as she hurried back inside to put on her coat. She really was pretty, with bright hazel eyes, long wavy hair of about the same colour, and a nice open smile. She had dimples in her cheeks and a very full bottom lip that jutted out in a natural pout, the sort one wanted to suck and bite on-
I coughed as Effemie re-emerged from her room, my own cheeks flushed as I tried to force the lustful thoughts away. That was not me, not anymore. I was not the shameless slattern of yesteryear. I was respectful, loving, ladylike. I would treat her with the respect she deserved, just as I would myself. I was not going to throw myself about anymore in the name of pleasure. Bella Fitzaren had standards, and dignity.
We conversed easily as we wandered, going via St Paul's at Effemie's suggestion; our restaurant being situated just north of St Bartholomew's Hospital. So innocently, like any normal person, she paused and stared at the illuminated dome, magnificent against the night sky, face wondrous. All I felt was sick, recalling my earlier turmoil in the church. We could not move on fast enough for me, though fortunately she did not seem to notice anything adverse in my behaviour.
Dinner was lovely, and I was delighted at how well we got along. I seemed to have been correct in my thoughts the first time I had met her that she was the right sort of person for my new self. Just the type of well-meaning soul that I needed to guide me through this period of transition from the reprehensible creature I had been to a normal, genuine human being. And that she was very pretty and seemed to fancy me were obvious bonuses. What were the odds? It had to be fate.
We left two hours later after halving the bill at her insistence, and began to meander back the way we had come. As we did so, I could not help but wonder how the evening was going to play out. Neither of us had even hinted at what was going on, even though we had both dressed up far nicer than was required for our destination, and she had been looking bashfully at me all evening. It had not been a mere 'friendly' meal, unless I had been reading the situation wrong. She had seemed to realise that when I had first suggested it, judging by the way she had reddened and stammered over her acquiescence.
Perhaps she was deliberately playing coy; wanted me to bring up the matter that this was not the beginning of friendship, it was courtship. Or maybe she was just playing with me altogether; thought my predilections were derisory, as well as the idea that there could be anything between us, and she was going to tell me at the end of the night that it had all been a practical joke, and I was pathetic and mentally ill. The notion was not an absurd one; a girl in my year at school had played such a game with me when I was sixteen, and had laughed her head off at the end of the night when I had gone in for a kiss, shoving me away and revealing the truth; the wager she and her friends had had about whether or not she could get me to believe her. Feeling naked and violated, I had given her a hard smack around the face that would later earn me a month of detentions and run off before she could see the tears in my eyes.
I shook myself as I had earlier, forcing the memories of my past life down as I regrettably seemed to find myself having to do far too often. No, of course Effemie was not doing any such thing. She was not like that. Not everyone was as cruel and manipulative as I had been.
I wanted to just say something and get the matter out into the open, but Bella Fitzaren was not blunt…I was not blunt. I had to get used to the first person. I was not blunt. I was not blunt.
Arabella-Marie Amelia Alessandra d'Aurenière-Reyer-Brandtburg-Fitzaren was blunt. She would have barrelled straight in and asked Effemie whether or not she fancied her and, if so, where the evening was going. Where the association in general was going. But then again, her soul was so disfigured and disgusting that she was hardly the person to take life advice from. Being her had certainly never done me any good.
So I attempted subtlety, that thing she had never been capable of.
"We should…do this again, maybe," I suggested as we neared St Paul's in reverse. "I have had a really nice evening."
Effemie nodded. "Yes. Yes, that would be…really nice."
"Good." I gave her the most genuine smile I could muster up.
"I have had a wonderful evening too."
An undeniably awkward silence fell as neither of us said anything more, and my hint came to naught. I had no idea what I was supposed to say. Arabella would have broken the silence with a joke, an inappropriate comment, laughing riotously at her own humour. But me…it seemed I was less jovial. And a good thing too, in all likelihood.
"Bella…" A deep frown was on Effemie's face, her voice quiet and hesitant. "I am not sure how to say this. I want to be sure we are…in a similar state of mind." I caught myself just in time from exhaling in relief. Oh, thank God. She was going to be the one to bring it up. "Listen, I…Bella…"
Bella. That name, so similar to Arabella's nickname 'Ella' that it did not sound entirely foreign to my ears. I had become used to answering to it, saying it, easily. 'Bella Fitzaren'…it had fallen off my tongue the first time around, under such different circumstances, and had been so easy to pick up in the summer when I needed to disappear, become someone else again.
"Bella…I…I like you, a lot." That word held such meaning. No one who was not looking for a hidden meaning, did not think there would be one, would notice anything out of the ordinary. But I knew exactly what she meant, as she wanted me to.
I smiled. "I like you too, Effemie."
She gave more quick, excited nods and a big smile, giving me a good glimpse of those gorgeous dimples in pink cheeks. I could not remember the last time someone had looked at me so, with such excitement at new feelings, new lust…blushing continually.
Well, actually, I could. I just did not want to think about it, or her. I had so utterly cut myself off from her since the events of the summer, and as much as doing so hurt, it was necessary. Even seeing her…talking to her…no one had been a bigger part of Arabella's life. No one knew Arabella so well. No one would be able to knock me off my path like she would; make me lose myself so much in past memories and love that I might even stop caring about trying to change myself.
She had sent me yet another letter, and I had picked it up with some other unimportant things from my pigeon-hole in Bridemoor's Porter's Lodge that morning. I had recognised the handwriting immediately; I knew it so intimately that I could even imitate it with the artistic talent I had been lucky enough to inherit from my grandfather. The envelope and paper inside smelt of her favourite perfume, and her, and every curve of that name, Ella, made my heart ache. I had not seen her since my nineteenth birthday, and that on the 23rd August. Two months ago. We had gone longer without seeing each other over the years, but that did not make it easier. Nor did the fact that although I knew she would be a very inexpedient person to have in my life then, I needed her more than ever.
Avie, darling, I miss you so much. How you would look at me now, your best friend, your love, who you once gazed upon with so much adoration and trust. You would die inside if you knew the depths I had sunk to. It is better that you are not around me, for your own sake, apart from anything else. Why do you think I have stayed away from you? Why do you think I will not reply to your letters, so stop asking me to, I beg you.
"Bella?" I looked at Effemie, torn out of my maudlin thoughts to see her regarding me questioningly. "I…well, it wasn't important. I only asked if there had been many girls you had…liked."
Did she mean bedded, or been in love with? Because the answers were poles apart. Dozens and dozens and…one.
I shrugged. "One or two. No one of real significance. What about you?"
"There were a couple at home that I liked…one of them quite a lot. We were together for almost a year, but it obviously had to end when I came here for university, with Exeter being so far from London."
"How unfortunate. I'm sorry."
"Oh, these things happen. It would have been unfair to the both of us if we had dragged it out, I think. She would have never seen me and I…well, they say you are meant to learn and change and grow at university, don't they? Have new opportunities, meet new people…" Effemie looked at me sideways. At first glance the expression seemed to be shy, but if I was not mistaken it was mixed with slyness. It seemed she was not nearly so much the blushing virgin I had first taken her for. I was more and more pleasantly surprised the longer we spent in each other's company. I could see this working, I really could. She was nice and kind and pretty…she was perfect. She was everything I needed then, and she liked me. Someone like her liked me!
"Isn't it beautiful?" She sighed seconds later, as we turned a corner and St Paul's Cathedral loomed into view again. "I never get tired of seeing it; I can't imagine I ever will, even when I am in my fifth year here."
"Five years is such a long time." And too long, in my opinion. Thank God my degree was only a three-year course. But then Effemie was studying Medicine, and that took a great deal longer to master than Theatre Studies and Dramatic Arts. I wished that I was not studying such at all, but it had been what brash and melodramatic Arabella had applied for, and Royal had refused to let me change courses, telling me that all other programmes were full, and I was ineligible for most of them anyway, as my choice of Highers subjects had left me qualified for only very art-based degrees.
"I know, but I have wanted to be a doctor since I was little. It is a small price to pay for achieving that dream." Smiling, she tilted her head towards the cathedral, changing the subject suddenly. "Do you want to go up?"
"All the way up?"
"Have you ever been? The views of London are breathtaking enough by day, but I can imagine they are sheerly exquisite by night…"
"No, I have never…" Staring upwards at the gigantic dome, I pondered the idea. Of course, such a thing would involve setting foot inside the church, something I had only ever done when at my most troubled, barring my first visit to London when I was much younger, and on holiday. I had not gone up to the dome then, however, too distracted by the first flushes of first love and wanting to get the visit over and done with as quickly as possible so I could drag my travelling companion back to our hotel to-
"Very well, why not?" I said, hauling myself out of my past once more. "It would be a lovely way to end the night."
Who knew whether or not we were supposed to be up there in the middle of the evening - I doubted so, but if they desired to keep people out perhaps they should have locked the church doors, or at least barred the way up to the skies. I was so glad they had not. Once we had made the strenuous climb and stepped outside into the cool, refreshing air, London lay glittering before our eyes, so large and bright and overwhelming that I gasped on my first glance. Never, never had I had such a view of the city before, of any city.
"It's beautiful," I managed to get out, voice breathless. "It's so vast!"
"I know." Effemie, next to me, seeming as awed as I was, nodded. "I was right when I said it would be a better view by night. Seeing it by day…there is no comparison."
"Thank you for bringing me up here," I said, turning to her and smiling. For the first time that evening, it was completely genuine. No playacting as Bella Fitzaren or remnants of Arabella d'Aurenière dictating my actions. Just genuine happiness and awe, and it had been so long since I had felt anything of the sort. Nothing plagued me in those moments, nothing hurt.
"Well, thank you for agreeing to come." She smiled back at me, the lights that illuminated the dome shining off her eyes, making them sparkle like amber fragments under a spotlight.
I kissed her there, under those lights, in front of the entirety of London. It happened so naturally, and she did not push me away as I might have feared she would, had I thought before acting.
It was sweet. Sweet and slow and I felt vague sparks rising in my stomach from the contact, genuine heat and attraction. And as we pulled away and looked at each other with shining eyes, I felt even more at peace. I had made the right decision with this. This was going to work, going to help me so much. It all felt so right, perfect…natural.
Just as, almost from that day onwards, our relationship was not. I could not have been more wrong; could not have possibly picked a path that would cause more damage.
But then, such a thing was typical, and I should not have been surprised when looking back on it later that I had found a way, however good my intentions were, to make things worse; to completely destroy yet another person and injure myself in the process.
The funny thing was, I was aware of someone speaking; saying that name. I was just not responding, as though something inside had ceased to make the connection. As though the person was talking to someone else. I obliviously carried on walking across the courtyard towards the building where my rooms were, book-filled satchel bumping against my hip, chewing on my bottom lip and trying once more to imagine a vast, white, silent space in my head and disappear into it to find some solitude and calm. No matter how many times I had tried such a thing, though, it never deigned to work.
Only when my shoulder was grabbed, startling me, did the calling of my name suddenly sink in. I spun around to face the person who had grabbed me, ashen-faced and shocked.
"Gosh, Bella, have you gone deaf?"
Something acidic was curdling in my stomach and I stared at the nice girl who I had been quite friendly with all year as though I did not recognise her.
"Bella? Are you all right?"
I had not heard it from anyone since, you see. Not since that night so recently when it had all fallen apart…when I had broken everything that I had spent all year building up. And at some point during the days in-between, 'Bella Fitzaren' had morphed into a visible, examinable entity; had somehow separated from being me to some character, much the way that she had been in the very beginning when I was still settling into her skin. Until that moment, I had not even realised this was the case, and I was stunned by the revelation, because if it had actually happened then there could be no way of sustaining my life; the coherency I was beginning to edge onto would not let me believe the lie anymore, no matter how much I wanted to.
I shook my head, feeling even sicker. "I'm sorry, I have to go," I mumbled, and turned back around and fled towards my building, ignoring her calls behind me to come back, that I was worrying her, and could she help?
I slammed the door to my room behind me and leant hard against it as though by doing so I could keep the truth out along with the world.
No, I could never go back. But I could not stay here, either, as much as I so wanted to slip into the ease of delusions again. I could not bear it for one more second. I could not fall for it anymore.
Only it was all very well saying that, but I did not know what I was supposed to do, or where I was supposed to go. Back to France? I would be swamped by my relations and friends, not to mention memories. Every single place that appeared in my mind as somewhere I could go had too many memories. That was why I was thinking of them; because I recalled being there in some happier time that I was not sure was even mine anymore, and some stupid part of me thought I could recapture it if I returned. Familiar was the last thing I needed, though, especially seeing as I would be alone. The idea of being somewhere by myself with my thoughts and memories was terrifying to me. Terrifying and dangerous.
With a sinking heart, Brettelyn's proposition drifted once more into my mind. I understood now why he had thought making it such a good idea. Los Angeles was somewhere completely unfamiliar to me, and however much we disliked each other, I would not be on my own. I knew he had quite a few friends out there too - nice, normal friends, several of whom I had met before. It would be some sort of temporary clean slate, a chance to revive, and it suddenly made so much sense.
Finally prising myself away from the door, I dropped my satchel to the floor and made my way over to the desk and the telephone there. I closed my eyes as I picked up the cold enamel receiver and fingers went to the little holes of the dial to enter his number, unable to believe that I was actually going to do this. Any second I was convinced that I was going to put down the telephone; end the farce, but I did not. I dialled. I agreed. And then the next day, I left.