Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Davies.
Disclaimers - This is an Uber story. As such, it doesn't actually feature the characters who appear in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess (and who are the sole copyright property of Studios USA Television Distribution LLC) but it was clearly inspired by them.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something else.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
This story is the sequel to Summer's Circus and will make much more sense if you read that first. In that story, I rashly implied that Alison went to Cheltenham Ladies' College; now, for consistency's sake, I'm stuck with it. Please note, however, that my version of the College, its staff, its pupils etc. bears no resemblance to the real thing. <g>
A SUMMER REUNION
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Alison woke to sunshine streaming through the blinds and sighed contentedly. Her feeling of lazy wellbeing had nothing to do with the warm July weather and everything to do with the warm naked shoulder she was pressed against and the arm circling her waist.
"Morning, sleepyhead," came a low voice in her ear.
"Morning." She yawned complacently. "Been awake long?" She turned over, brushed back the tangled mane of black hair from Summer's face, and gazed into ice blue eyes. Even after a year, those eyes still had the capacity to made her breath catch.
"Yeah." Summer kissed her gently. "Bloody starlings! You'd think they'd have a lie-in on Sundays at least."
Belatedly, Alison registered the frenzied twittering coming from outside the caravan. That was the trouble with city sites, she mused, and Summer's Circus had been camped on this one for nearly two weeks now. The desolate patch of wasteland and the noise of traffic and birds were the downside; the upside was that commuting to Birmingham from Cheltenham every night had been a cinch.
She returned Summer's kiss then snuggled closer, pulling the ringmaster's arm more tightly around her waist. "I'm going to miss this," she grumbled.
"It’s only for six days."
"Only! And then it's another six days … and another."
"Maybe I can sneak you in. I'll have to see what the situation is."
"Hmmm. You do that and all the others will be wanting their lovers in too."
"And why not? Just 'cause we're on a course doesn't mean we have to suffer nookie deprivation."
Alison snorted. "'Nookie deprivation'?!"
She pondered Summer's words for a moment. "Maybe they think it'll sap your stamina …. Boxers aren't allowed to have sex before a match, you know."
"No, I didn’t know."
Alison shrugged. "So I've heard, anyway."
"I don’t think stunt work is in quite the same category, Bun." The dark-haired woman glanced provocatively at her.
"Hey!" She poked a finger in Summer's midriff. "Will you lay off the 'Bun'?
Summer flashed her a grin. "Make me …, Bunnikins."
"I'll make you, all right." Alison reached for a pillow ….
A quarter of an hour later, feathers covered both women, the carpet, the sink and tiny bookshelf, the chest of drawers, even the mobile phone … which rang.
"Summer Blake," said Summer rather breathlessly into the mouthpiece.
Alison spat out a feather and struggled to free herself from an imprisoning arm.
"Behave," hissed the ringmaster.
She subsided obediently.
"Can I help you?" continued Summer. Abruptly, she released Alison and thrust the phone at her. "It's for you."
Uh oh. Alison accepted the receiver. Only one person knew she could be reached via this number. "Mother," she said.
It definitely wasn't her mother, but the voice was familiar. It was a moment before she could place it though. "Zoe?"
"That's right. Look," said the schoolfriend she hadn't seen for ten years, "I'm in a bit of a bind, and I was wondering whether you could do me this big favour."
Alison's stomach lurched. "What sort of favour?" She became aware that Summer was regarding her curiously.
"Well … you know I'm in charge of this 'Sixth Form Day Girls of 89 Reunion' thingy in three weeks' time?"
Alison remembered the letter she had tossed straight in the bin. Schooldays had been bad enough at the time without reliving them. "Uh huh," she said warily.
"Well, something's come up. I have to go to America for a month. My sister - you remember Helen? -"
Alison did, vaguely. A gangling girl, three years older than Zoe, who had regarded her younger sister and her friends as though they were something nasty she'd stepped in.
"- well, she's got to have an operation - major surgery, unfortunately - so I'm going over there to help out with the kids while she's in hospital. The thing is, Ali, I was wondering if you could take over organizing the Reunion for me."
"Me?!" Summer patted Alison's thigh reassuringly, and Alison covered the ringmaster's hand with her own. "Uh, Zoe. I don’t think so. I wasn't even going to attend the damn thing, let alone organize it."
"Oh, but you wouldn't have to do much, Ali," continued her friend persuasively. "I've taken care of everything. You'd just have to confirm my arrangements. And since you live in Cheltenham, you're right on the spot …."
"Say: No." Summer's warm breath tickled her ear. "Don’t let her make you do something you don’t want to. You've got the Fringe Festival to cover, remember?"
"Shh - I know," whispered Alison. She ran a hand distractedly through her hair as Zoe continued.
"… Dani will be there."
"Dani?" Alison's ears pricked up. "I though she was in Athens."
"She was. But her three year stint is up, so she's coming back to England until she gets her new posting. She's dying to see you, Ali. I said: no problem, you could put her up."
"You said what?!"
"Don’t worry. She's used to roughing it," continued Zoe blithely.
"I would like to see Dani again," said Alison incautiously.
"Good. That's settled then."
"Oh, but -"
Zoe's voice talked over the top of her. "Thanks, you’re a pal. I'll courier the paperwork to you by tomorrow morning. And as I said, you won’t have to do anything except confirm what I've already set up. You'll have a whale of a time, Ali."
With that, Zoe rang off, leaving Alison feeling as though she'd just been mown down by a runaway bulldozer.
"So," said Summer, retrieving the phone. "What have you let yourself in for this time?"
"Um. Organizing a school reunion?" Alison gazed confusedly at her.
Summer sighed. "Great!"
"It'll be fun," said Alison unconvincingly. A thought struck her. "Hey, partners are invited too, you know."
"Just peachy." Summer fetched a dustpan and brush and started sweeping up the feathers.
'Fun', thought Alison, admiring the show - Summer had apparently forgotten she was still naked. Then why do I have this awful sinking feeling I've just bitten off more than I can chew?
Summer peered again at the slip of paper taped to the van's dashboard and frowned. She could think of far better ways to spend a Monday morning.
A41 to Banbury: check.
B4525 to Northampton: check.
Nine miles until you reach Moreton Pinkney: check.
Then take the winding country lane into the back of beyond and get yourself hopelessly lost: check.
Movement startled her and she turned and found herself eyeball to eyeball with a massive tan-and-white cow. A surprisingly large tongue appeared and smeared the glass making her very glad she had kept the van window closed.
The cow rolled its eyes, mooed lethargically, then ambled off to join its fellows. The herd, their udders so full Summer almost winced in sympathy, meandered past the van and turned into an open gate a little further down the lane, leaving a trail of steaming cowpats. Moments later, a farmer's lad clad in scruffy dungarees and wellingtons came to the gate, closed it, then ran after the herd.
Summer opened the door hastily and yelled, "Hey. Hang on. Can you tell me how to get to - " But the lad had already disappeared into the distance. Belatedly, she became aware of the acrid smell of fresh manure and took refuge in the van again.
She reached for the map, studied it a while longer, then screwed it into a ball and threw it into the back seat. Somewhere in deepest darkest Northamptonshire was the Geoff Wyatt Stunt School … but she was damned if she knew where.
Summer restarted the engine and continued down the narrow lane, swearing at the tall hedges that made driving in the English countryside so scenic … and so dangerous. She came to a tiny hamlet she'd have missed if she'd blinked and screeched to a halt outside the post office-cum-shop.
A stick thin old man was loading groceries into the basket of his sit-up-and-beg bicycle. She wound down the window and called, "Excuse me."
He looked towards her and smiled. Then his gaze took in the van's logo: 'Summer's Circus', and he blinked in surprise.
"I'm looking for the Geoff Wyatt Stunt School." She smiled.
Summer's smile slipped. "Yeah. It’s supposed to be somewhere round here. At -" she checked the details on the taped slip of paper, "-Wappenham."
"Ah." He nodded sagely. "You've come the wrong way then, Miss. Go back to the last crossroads you came to and turn left."
She sighed. "Thanks."
As the old man cycled away, she decided rather than attempt to turn the van in such a narrow spot it might simply be better to reverse. Moments later, she was regretting her decision. If the lanes round here were bad going forward, they were even worse in reverse. As she came to the excrement spattered stretch of road, a familiar tan-and-white face gazed dolefully over the gate at her and mooed.
She stuck two fingers up at it. "Yeah, you too!"
At last she reached the crossroads and corrected her mistake. Ten minutes later she saw a sign saying 'Stunt School 100 yards' and breathed out a heartfelt sigh of relief.
Geoff Wyatt's Stunt School matched the description in the brochure, thank God. Set in several acres of pasture, it comprised a mix of converted old farm buildings and purpose-built accommodation. Summer drove up the track towards the small gravelled carpark, parked next to a Range Rover and got out. It was a relief to be able to stretch the kinks from her spine - the van was slightly too cramped for her six foot frame. She gazed at the signposts: Stables, Paddock, Gym, and …. Ah. Reception.
She was retrieving her travel bag from the van when a red Triumph Stag with the top down roared up the track and screeched to a halt next to her, sending up a shower of chippings.
"Hey! Watch it!"
A red-haired young man extracted himself from the low slung bucket seat, and seemed unabashed by her frown. "Hi there." He held out his hand. "Name's Justin Oliver."
His gaze was roaming appreciatively over her figure and she tried not to roll her eyes. Talk about a walking cliché.
He regarded the battered van and its logo appraisingly. "You here for the course?"
He nodded then pulled his travel bag from the sports car and like her scanned the signposts. "No shooting range?" His face fell.
Summer shrugged and started walking towards Reception. The young man hurried to join her and then was hard pressed to match her long stride. She suppressed a smile.
He was harmless, she decided. Like an overfriendly dog. "Birmingham. You?"
They reached the old farm building that doubled as Reception, and Summer wiped her boots on the doormat. The door was ajar, so she pushed it open and stepped through into the stone passageway. The temperature inside was several degrees lower than outside, and a delicious aroma of roast beef met them.
She strode across to the unmanned reception desk and thumped a hand on the bell. The loud ping almost deafened her.
Justin laughed. "Don't know your own strength!"
Distant sounds resolved themselves into footsteps clattering down stairs. A plump, rosy cheeked woman in an apron came into view. "Sorry," she panted. "I was upstairs getting the rooms ready."
She stopped in front of Summer, who was a full head taller, and gaped up at her. Then she visibly shook herself and hurried behind the desk.
"Okeydokey." She flipped open the register and ran a chubby finger down the list of names. "Summer Blake, right?"
Summer grinned, liking the woman instinctively. "How'd you guess?"
"Well, there are only three woman on the course, and somehow you don’t look like a Natasha or a Harriet."
"And I'm Justin Oliver," said the young man beside her self-importantly.
"Of course you are, dear." The woman winked at Summer then turned back to the register and ticked both names. "I'm Helen Wyatt, Geoff's wife. I'm also head-cook-and-bottlewasher, so if you have any comments or complaints about the meals or accommodation while you're here -" she pointed at her own ample bosom and grinned, "- I'm to blame."
Summer nodded. "Pleased to meet you, Helen. I'll remember that."
"Me too," piped up Justin.
"Righto. If you'll both follow me," said Helen, "I'll take you to your rooms."
The bulky envelope was waiting on Alison's doormat when she got back to her flat in Lansdown Crescent. She picked it up and threw it, unopened, onto the coffee table in the sitting room, then she shucked her jacket and went through to the kitchen to make herself some coffee. While she waited for the kettle to boil, she wondered idly what Summer was doing.
She was still not sure quite why the ringmaster had decided to go on the course in Northamptonshire. They hadn't really discussed Summer's sudden interest in stunt work - not for want of trying on Alison's part - though Summer had muttered that it would be 'another string to her bow'.
Alison chewed the inside of her lip thoughtfully. She suspected money was at the root of it, or rather lack of money. Even though Summer's Uncle Tommy had pumped much needed funds into Summer's pride and joy, the little circus was still struggling to make ends meet, and the ringmaster was taking only a minimum wage and ploughing the rest back.
It didn't bother Alison one jot that Summer wasn't bringing in much (Alison's father's legacy had left her comfortably well off, and the fees from her journalism were icing on the cake) but she suspected it was driving Summer crazy.
She sighed. The ironic thing was, the stunt course fees were exorbitant. Alison had been more than willing to help Summer out, but her pigheaded partner's lips had tightened and she'd decided not to press the point. And since no bank manager in his right mind would contemplate lending a penny to a broke circus owner, Summer had been forced to borrow the fees from Uncle Tommy. Talk about a vicious circle.
Alison poured hot water on coffee granules, added milk, then took her mug through to the sitting room. As she sank into the sofa, allowing the caffeine to dispel the fatigue from the drive back from Birmingham - the traffic had been murder this morning - she gazed balefully at the brown envelope. Eventually she caved in, reached for it, and tore it open.
She spread the contents of the envelope over the coffee table and examined them one by one: details of those invited and their responses; details of the venue booked, its time and date; hotel reservations; caterers hired and buffet menu agreed; DJ hired and theme agreed (Pop music from 1989); provisional schedule of the Reunion itself, which included (I'll soon put a stop to that!) speeches ….
Zoe was nothing if not organized, thought Alison, finishing her now tepid coffee.
There was also, she saw, a note of the more informal arrangements made by those reluctant to splurge on hotels, and beside Dani's name was pencilled: 'staying with Alison Carmichael'. She glanced round the little flat, wondering whether Dani would mind the sofa. Well, tough. No way was her old schoolfriend getting the bed.
Alison kicked off her shoes, and wiggled her toes. It looked like Zoe had been right, she thought with relief. The Reunion was under control … though she'd have to make sure she confirmed all the provisional arrangements by the dates required. And that being the case, she was free to concentrate on Cheltenham's annual Fringe Festival, about which she had agreed to write an article for The Guardian.
She yawned. Before the Festival began, however, she had another assignment - an interview with the chief executive of a film studio that had recently set up shop in Cheltenham. Which meant she had some serious research to do if she wasn't going to look like a complete idiot.
With a sigh, Alison slipped her shoes back on, got up and searched for her borrowers card. It was time to go to work, and as always, her first stop was the library ….
"Any questions?" Geoff Wyatt stroked his grizzled beard absently and regarded each of his pupils in turn. When his gaze met hers, Summer shook her head.
"Right then," he continued. "It's time to put the theory into practice … well, practice of a sort, anyway. You won’t be driving for real until tomorrow. Follow me."
Summer got to her feet and joined the other seven prospective stuntees as they trooped out of the classroom and along the corridor. Justin fell in eagerly beside her and she tried not to sigh.
When was the last time she had let someone organize her like this? she wondered. Then she smiled. Last night, in fact - when Alison had ordered her to 'get your kit off and get over here, pronto'. She wondered what the bossy blonde was up to now. Sorting out that damned Reunion her so-called friend had lumbered her with, she supposed.
"Did anyone ever tell you what great eyes you have?" Justin asked.
Summer grunted. They're just blue eyes, she thought irritably. Alison's eyes, on the other hand …. Maybe an artist could describe the fascinating blend of green and hazel that changed depending on the blonde woman's mood, the way Summer felt when she gazed deep into them -
"How tall are you, exactly?"
She sighed. "Tall enough." She wished he'd go and pester Natasha or Harriet. Trouble was, the other two women on the course were both blonde - Natasha was tall and slim, and Harriet was short and stocky - and blondes clearly weren't Justin's type.
"When are we going to get onto weapon handling?" asked a male voice - Summer couldn't see if it was the laid-back Mark, the lugubrious Tim, ponytailed Jules, or the bullet headed Phil.
"All in good time, Phil," called Wyatt.
The range of skills stunt performers were expected to provide had surprised Summer. She merely wanted to capitalize on the things she already knew: trapeze, gymnastics, wire walking, juggling etc. Now here she was, being taught precision driving. She sighed. With all the car chases that TV and movie makers inserted, appropriate or not, into shows these days, it made sense, she supposed.
She waited while the course director unlocked an unmarked door, then followed him into a dark room that smelled like the barn it must once have been. As the overhead lights flickered on, her eyes widened. The other course members murmured - some in admiration, some in dismay.
The front sections of ten Vauxhall Cavaliers, minus their wheels, faced ten TV screens. Cables and struts connected each chassis to a mass of machinery that seemed to consist mostly of levers and hydraulic rams.
"You can crash these babies as many times as you like and you won’t end up in casualty." Wyatt grinned. "You'll have a few lumps and bruises though." He gestured. "These simulators are rigged to mimic the movements of a real car. Watch."
He crossed to the nearest simulator, donned the crash helmet resting on the roof, then climbed in. Wires trailed from the helmet. "There are speakers in the helmets," said Wyatt, seeing the direction of Summer's gaze. "You'll be able to hear the gears crunching, tyres squealing, engine revving … just like real life. Feedback is vital if you're to react quickly. And make no mistake about it, fast reaction times can be crucial, the difference between life and death."
He strapped on the seat belt, then reached forward and flicked some switches. There was a sudden humming sound, and a faint acrid smell of ozone filled the barn. The dashboard gauges in front of Wyatt flickered into life, lights turning quickly from red to green.
On the TV screen appeared a racetrack, just like in some Grand Prix arcade game. As Wyatt shifted up through the gears and floored the accelerator, the track began to unroll. He turned the steering wheel right, then left, and the view of the track shifted accordingly.
"Watch what happens when I go into a spin and a roll," he said, and proceeded to do just that.
As the track on the TV screen rotated crazily, the car chassis lurched in sympathy. By the time the track was stationary again the TV view of the track was upside down … and so were the Cavalier and Wyatt.
Summer winced. If he hadn't been helmeted and belted securely in place, he'd have cracked his head open.
The course director winked at the watching students, reached out and pressed a reset switch on the dashboard. The Cavalier righted itself and was still bouncing slightly when Wyatt unbelted and removed the crash helmet. His cheeks were flushed from the rush of blood to his head.
"See?" He gave a rueful grimace. "You won’t want to do that too often." He eased himself out. "Now it's your turn, folks. Summer - you take this one." He moved off and the others followed him.
"Justin. You take this one."
While the others were each allocated a simulator, Summer eyed hers warily. She sighed, reached for the helmet Wyatt had discarded, and pulled it on.
Oh well. How hard can it be? She eased herself into the driving seat ….
One hour later, Summer was wishing she'd never set eyes on the damned simulator. She was bruised, sweaty, headachy, tired of staring at that damned track, and most of all fed up of finding herself hanging upside down. Fortunately, years as an aerialist meant she was familiar with the position.
"Hey." She turned to find Wyatt crouching next to her Cavalier, a sympathetic look on his face. "Take a break," he ordered.
"Thanks." She eased herself out of the driving seat and stretched cramped shoulder and leg muscles. She felt profoundly depressed.
"You’re not doing as badly as you think, Summer," said Wyatt quietly.
"No?" She smiled sardonically. "I've just crashed for the sixth time in a row."
He chuckled. "Even so. I've been watching you. You're making the right choices, you're just not acting on them fast enough."
She ran a hand through her sweaty hair. "There's too much to think about, and no time to think."
"Maybe that's your problem. You're thinking too much."
She raised an eyebrow.
He grinned. "When you first learned how to catch a ball, I bet you kept dropping it because you were concentrating on how fast it was going, where you had to stand, where you had to put your hands …? Later on, you found you could catch the ball without even thinking about it. Right?"
"Right." She began to get a glimmer of where he was going.
"This is just like that. Mass, inertia, velocity, angles, down force …. You don’t have time to number crunch the equations, Summer. You have to act on instinct. What I'm asking you to do here is internalize the theory …."
Summer's snorted. "No chance!"
"Believe me, you’re nearly there." He patted her on the shoulder reassuringly. "The time has come to let go of the theory and calculations - to go with your gut."
"My gut." Her voice was flat.
He nodded. "That's what this little exercise has been all about. Ready for another go?"
Summer sighed. "As ready as I’ll ever be."
Alison was surrounded by books on the history of the cinema when the phone rang. Reluctantly she dragged her thoughts away from her interview questions and reached for the receiver.
"Is that Alison Carmichael?" The woman's voice was vaguely familiar.
"Yes. Who is this, please?"
"Ali. How marvellous to speak to you after all these years. This is Leah Hummel used to be Fisher … do you remember me?"
It was the braying laugh more than anything that brought back memories of the horse-faced girl with glasses. They hadn't been friends, exactly. Leah was one of a brainy trio who had become teacher's pets and reaped the inevitable reward. Alison cringed, remembering.
"Leah! How did you get my number?"
"Zoe, of course. Now, I just wanted to make some teensy weensy alterations to my hotel booking, if you wouldn’t mind. My husband said he wouldn’t be free that weekend but he's just found out he will be after all. So we thought we'd make a weekend of it, visit old haunts, see old friends …."
She droned on a for a few more minutes about nothing very much - Alison had forgotten Leah tended to do that - then finally came to the point. "So, can you make that a double room at the Murvagh Court Hotel instead of a single, and for the Sunday as well?"
"That shouldn't be a problem," said Alison.
"Great. TTFN, then." The braying voice rang off.
With a sigh, she got to her feet, books and papers sliding off her lap, found the envelope with the Reunion details in it, and pulled out the hotel booking forms. Then she spent the next half an hour trying (and eventually succeeding) to convince the dim hotel desk clerk on the other end of the phone, that Yes, she had definitely made a booking previously, and Yes, surprise, surprise, she wanted to alter it, please.
"Aaaaargh!" yelled Alison, after she'd rung off.
It was with a huge sense of relief that she returned to her books and the questions she was planning to ask the film studio boss tomorrow.
As Alison worked, though, she couldn’t quite shake off the nagging feeling that, if Leah's minor alteration was the only change she'd need to make to Zoe's arrangements, she'd be very lucky … very lucky indeed.
Summer checked her watch. She had meant to ring Grigori, who'd taken over as ringmaster while she was away, and check things were running smoothly. But by the time dinner had been served and duly appreciated (Helen Wyatt was an excellent cook so Summer wasn't missing the cook wagon meals at all) the circus's evening performance was underway.
Instead, she picked up the phone, punched in the number she knew so well, and settled back against the headboard.
"Hello?" said a wary voice.
"Did you miss me?"
"Summer." The wariness vanished. "You've no idea!"
"'Cause I've been missing you like crazy."
"Aah. How sweet." She could hear the smile in Alison's voice. "So what are we going to do about it? Phone sex?"
"Ha bloody ha." Summer grabbed a pillow, made herself more comfortable, and pictured her blonde lover doing the same.
"So," continued Alison. "What's the place like, and the people? They been working you hard?"
"Um … OK, OK, and you bet."
"Terse to the point of incomprehension, as always. Elaborate, please."
Summer grinned. "You and your big words." She felt herself relaxing for the first time all day. "I wish I could hold you," she said softly.
Alison sighed. "Me too. But if you keep on reminding me I can't, I'll get the heebie-jeebies."
"Nothing. So, tell me about the course. What have you been learning?"
Summer allowed Alison to change the subject. "The set up; turn-in points and racing lines; rotations; front and rear wing -"
"Are you still speaking English?"
"That's the jargon of precision driving, Alison. Today, we trained on simulators." She didn't mention how shook up it had left her. "Tomorrow we're off to Silverstone to try out the real thing."
"Yep. It's not far from here. I didn't realize it was in the middle of the countryside, did you? Talking of which … a cow mooed at me this morning!"
"You probably deserved it."
"Thanks very much!"
A companionable silence fell and they simply listened to each other's breathing for a moment.
"So, how was your day?" asked Summer eventually.
"So so. Two old girls rang about the Reunion - one to cancel, one to change her hotel booking. It's weird, Summer, hearing all these voices from the past. I'll probably have nightmares about them tonight."
"I know what you mean. Still, there must be some good memories from your time at the Ladies' College too."
"Some," admitted Alison. "It'll be nice to see Dani again."
"That's your best friend?"
"What about the teachers?"
"Since the reunion is 'unofficial', we didn't have to ask any, thank God. The only 'adult' Zoe invited was Miss Pargeter. But there's been no reply from her."
"Who was she?"
"The Housemistress of the Sixth Form Day Girls."
"What sort of school was this?!"
"She wasn't that kind of mistress." Alison's chuckle made Summer smile. "She did a bit of teaching too, but her main responsibility was our wellbeing."
"I’d already guessed that."
"Oh, you! … And it wasn't just our House that had a Housemistress. The Boarding Houses each had one too."
"You College girls were proper little pampered pets, weren't you?"
"Ha ha! You're just jealous."
"Maybe. Anyway, this … Miss Pargeter, she was a good Housemistress?"
"The best. I can't tell you how many times I cried on her shoulder."
A pang shot through Summer at the thought of the teenage Alison feeling so miserable. "If I'd been there, I'd've let you cry on my shoulder," she said rather wistfully.
"I know you would, love." Alison sighed. "That was a very confusing time for me … finding out I preferred girls."
"Tell me about it," said Summer feelingly. "So. You confided in Miss Pargeter?"
"Not exactly. But I think she guessed …. I'd really like to know how she's doing these days. Ten years is a long time - she could be dead for all I know."
They chatted about nothing very much for a while, each reluctant to break the connection, then Summer took the initiative and rang off.
The other stuntees were probably socializing downstairs - there was a small bar and games room - but Summer didn't feel up to it. Instead, she reached for the detective novel Alison had thoughtfully bought for her and given her before she left that morning.
When the circus's evening performance was over, she managed to contact Grigori and sort out the few queries he had. Around eleven, when even her favourite author's exciting plot couldn’t keep her eyelids from drooping, she decided to call it a day. The course must have taken more out of her than she'd thought.
She brushed her teeth, climbed into bed, and switched off the bedside light. Then she pulled the sheets up to her chin and tried, unsuccessfully, not to miss the warm body that should be wrapped around hers.
Damn! she thought sleepily. The next three weeks are going to be hard. Thank God I get Sundays off.
Since her interview wasn't until later that afternoon, Alison had taken the opportunity to drive over to her Mother's house in the Cotswolds. She had hoped to leave all thoughts of the Reunion behind for a few hours, but, of course, it soon reared its head.
"I thought you'd like seeing your schoolfriends again, dear. That's why I gave Zoe your phone number. If I'd known -"
Alison gave her mother a look. "I suppose your schooldays were the happiest days of your life?"
Veronica Carmichael considered for a moment. "I believe they were."
"What, dear?" Her mother finished pouring the tea.
"Well, they weren't mine."
The older woman added slices of lemon. "You never said anything at the time."
"What could you and Father have done? Besides, it wasn't so much school that was the problem as the inmates."
Some of the girls at the Ladies' College had been anything but ladylike. Boarders had picked on Day Girls; those with money had picked on those without; University candidates had picked on those content to go on to office jobs …. Zoe, Dani, and Alison had looked out for one another; even so, it had been a huge relief to them all to leave it behind. And now I'm organizing the bloody reunion! I must be mad!
"Inmates." Still chuckling at the term, her mother led Alison through to the sitting room and sat down.
Alison absentmindedly helped herself to two of the Nice biscuits so temptingly displayed on a plate and received a reproving look for her pains. Defiantly, she took two more.
"Zoe and Dani were nice enough," said her mother. "Your father thought so, anyway."
Alison swallowed a mouthful of biscuit and reached for her cup of tea. "They liked him too." She smiled, remembering.
"He used to say we should consider adopting them since they seemed to live here anyway."
Alison laughed. It was just the kind of thing Father would say.
The three Day Girls had treated each other's houses as communal property, she supposed, sleeping over, dishing the dirt, talking about their dreams and ambitions …. But as she grew older and it dawned on her that the gender of her white knight was different from that of her friends', Alison had become increasingly reticent ….
She vividly remembered the day Dani confronted her about her suspicions, the tearful heart-to-heart, the fear of rejection … the relief when, far from showing disgust, Dani simply hugged her. But then, Dani had always been more on Alison's wavelength than Zoe. In fact Zoe still didn’t know Alison was gay … unless Dani had told her.
Alison had meant to stay closer in touch with Dani, but then came her friend's posting abroad …. She sighed. The Ladies' College could feel justifiably proud of Dani's achievements within the Diplomatic Service. Alison wasn't so certain they'd feel the same way about her.
"Are spouses invited?" The question jerked her out of her reverie and she realized her mother was talking about the Reunion.
"Yes. Spouses, partners, 'significant others' …."
"Is Summer going?"
The query, so innocuous on the surface, pleased Alison immeasurably - it was the context that was important. It had taken over a year, she thought, but her mother was finally beginning to acknowledge the ringmaster's importance in her daughter's life.
"Yes." In fact Summer had immediately said she would go to the Reunion, it was Alison who had been unsure.
"Don’t they know you're gay?" Summer had asked, her gaze shrewd.
The question was a sign of their growing trust in one another. A year ago, Summer would have assumed the reason was simply that Alison was ashamed of her.
"Well … Dani does," hedged Alison.
"Don’t you want them to know?"
"Ummm. I'm not sure. To be honest, I'm already a little …scared … wondering how I'm going to measure up. They're bound to come clutching checklists: husband who's something in the City, children at private school, flash car, huge house, high-powered career -"
Summer had raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, right."
Then Summer had lectured her - the longest speech she'd heard from her taciturn partner in a while - about no longer being a schoolgirl and needing the validation of people she didn't respect anyway. And Alison knew every word was resoundingly true, but it made not a scrap of difference to the lingering feelings of inadequacy that were the legacy of her schooldays.
"At least Zoe hasn't invited the bullies," she told her mother without thinking.
"Bullies!" Her mother gave her a look. "Really, Alison. You do exaggerate."
Well they were, protested Alison silently. And the fact Zoe hadn't even considered sending those particular Sixth Form Day Girls invitations endorsed her view. But she knew her mother would never believe her, so it was time to change the subject.
She stared out of the window at the huge back garden that was her mother's pride and joy. "The garden's looking lovely, Mother."
The older woman gave her a pleased smile. "It is, isn’t it? I was planning to visit that new garden centre this weekend. The far border needs something, and I was thinking: maybe a Callistemon? But I'm not sure what would be best - a citrinus or a subulatus …."
Alison suppressed a sigh and resigned herself to hearing unintelligible Latin words for the next half an hour.
Summer had only ever watched motor racing in passing - its sheer noise got on her nerves - so she was unfamiliar with Silverstone. That Geoff Wyatt was able to hire the circuit for the morning was something of a surprise. She could see the advantages though. No point in the Stunt School providing a purpose-built race track when Silverstone was so near.
It was eerie being here like this. The stands were empty of spectators, and she tried to imagine what it would be like to be Mika Hakkinen in front of a roaring crowd. One thing she knew, if she won she wouldn’t waste the champagne by spraying it all over everyone.
They had gathered in the Stunt School carpark after breakfast, as instructed, and Wyatt himself had driven them over to Silverstone in the School minibus. Now they were standing in what she thought was called a Pit stop, and she was relieved to see that they weren't going to be driving Formula 1 but ordinary cars, which on closer inspection proved to have had their cages reinforced like stock cars.
"Right. Listen up," said Wyatt, calling the eight of them to attention. "I'm going to take each of you out in turn and put the car into a controlled spin."
"Cool," said Justin.
Summer kept her expression neutral, though she could feel her anxiety building.
"As we go round the circuit, I'll be telling you my thought processes," continued Wyatt. "After the work we've done, you should find few surprises." He grinned at them. "Don’t worry. I haven't lost a student yet."
"There's always a first time," said Tim mournfully.
"Don’t be such a loser," said Phil, confirming Summer's opinion that he was an arrogant son-of-a-bitch.
"After that," continued Wyatt, "we swap seats, and it'll be your turn to drive. Clear so far?"
"Clear," came the chorus, and Summer noticed Harriet and Natasha exchanging worried glances. Jules and Mark, too, seemed nervous. Well, who in their right mind wouldn't be?
"OK," said the course instructor. "Who's going to be first. Phil?"
Couldn’t happen to a nicer person.
Summer watched Wyatt and Phil walk towards a red Ford Escort which had mesh for windows instead of glass and whose doors were welded shut. They each donned a crash helmet, then flipped the mesh up and eased themselves inside. Moments later came the sound of the engine revving, and then the Ford took off like a rocket.
It's like being in the dentist's waiting room, thought Summer, as she talked desultorily with the others - tension making the conversation fragmented and not always sensible - or paced up and down.
The Ford reappeared and with a vrooom it was past the Pit. Summer caught a glimpse of a grinning Phil giving them the finger.
"You too, buddy!" yelled Justin as it disappeared round the bend.
"Idiot," muttered Summer. She noticed Justin's hurt look. "Not you. Bullethead."
"'Bullethead'?" Justin laughed.
When the Ford Escort reappeared a few minutes later, it was going even faster. Then it happened. As the red car drew level with their position, its back end became unsettled and it went into a skid. With a squeal of rubber, the Ford slewed right round, until it was heading … backwards … through the gravel trap towards the tyre barrier.
Summer's heart was in her mouth until she remembered that Wyatt had deliberately caused the spin and was presumably in full control of it.
Sure enough, the car came to a gentle halt, inches from the barrier. Seconds later, its passenger erupted out of the window, tugged off his crash helmet, and was sick all over his shoes.
The watchers broke into spontaneous applause and whistles.
"Hey, Phil, don’t be such a loser," called Tim.
Summer didn't know whether to laugh or cry. If 'Bullethead' had been reduced to this state so quickly, what was going to happen to her?
Leaving its still heaving passenger behind, the Ford Escort reversed away from the barrier, then headed towards the Pit stop. It came to a halt next to Summer. She peered in and saw Wyatt leaning across and beckoning at her.
"Looks like you’re up next, Summer," said Justin.
"… and of course J. Arthur Rank achieved it."
The interview with Jack Baron, who was in his 70s and 'old school', had been stilted and unrevealing, much to Alison's dismay. She couldn't blame the studio head for spending the last half hour giving her the hard sell - his operation was brand new, after all, and still finding its way - but she could have gleaned the details of commercials, films, TV series currently being filmed here or on location nearby from the press release.
Her opinion of him had dropped even further when he asked, "Will you be Mother?" and waited expectantly for her to pour the tea.
She bit back a facetious reply and obediently poured the sludge he had left brewing for too long in its china teapot. She couldn’t drink more than a mouthful of her tea, and noticed that he disguised the flavour of his with three spoonfuls of sugar.
Fortunately, he loosened up a bit when asked about his influences, and whether he was aiming to rival Hollywood or the British studio equivalent. It had started him talking about Pinewood and Elstree, the black-and-white films he had loved as a boy … and J. Arthur Rank, on whom Baron had evidently modelled his own career.
Time for a bit of fun, she decided. "So, you'll be opening a charm school like Rank, then?"
Baron stared at her.
"To groom your starlets in?" She kept a straight face.
"Miss Carmichael," he said carefully. "Are you making fun of me?"
She let a grin form. "Did it work?"
To her relief, he chuckled. "I was being stuffy, wasn't I?"
Wisely, she kept silent.
"I try not to be," he continued, "but it's hard to keep a sense of perspective in this industry. People are always buttering you up because they want something." He smiled at her; a genuine smile. "Starlets … now there's a thought. Rank has its privileges, eh?"
Had he just made a joke? she wondered, startled.
"No, Miss Carmichael. No Charm School. Its day is long past, as is, hopefully, the day of the casting couch." He regarded her shrewdly. "I may be old-fashioned in my attitudes towards the fairer sex, but I don’t use them. I don’t design their bras either - I leave that to the costume department."
A reference to Howard Hughes? "I'm very glad to hear it."
He steepled his fingers. "So," he said. "That's enough of the promotional bullshit."
She raised an eyebrow in a gesture she had copied from Summer.
"Ask me what you really want to know."
Alison grinned and leaned forward eagerly. "Well, as a matter of fact, Mr Baron, I was wondering …. Suppose a stunt woman lived locally; how would she go about getting regular work at your film studio?"
CONTINUED IN PART 2