Disclaimers - See Part 1.
A SUMMER REUNION - PART 5
Alison stared at Lauren Jarvis. The plump woman's Reunion outfit - a red satin cami top, short black skirt, and spike heels - made her look like a hooker. Her two companions: Katie Hughes and Alice Sharp, were dressed just as tastefully.
The three school bullies, together …. She'd had nightmares like this. The hands round her waist tightened comfortingly. With one major difference.
"Lauren," said Alison flatly. "What are you doing here?"
"Yeah - bet you didn't expect to see me, did you, Ali? Seems you forgot to mention this little 'get-together'," - Lauren gestured at their surroundings - "when I saw you in the Post Office the other day." Her gaze flickered to Summer. "You also forgot to mention you’re a dyke."
The old girls nearest them were murmuring excitedly to one another, their expressions ranging from dismay to anticipation. None showed the remotest desire to intervene.
Looks like I'm providing the floor show, tonight, thought Alison grimly. The hands round her waist squeezed again. Well, maybe not just me.
"Even though our invitations somehow got mysteriously lost in the post -" Lauren curled her lip, "- we knew we simply couldn’t pass this up." She turned to her companions. "Could we, girls?"
Katie and Alice exchanged smirks and shook their heads. "We're Sixth Form Day Girls of 89 too," said Alice.
"Yeah, right," added Katie.
"We have just as much right to be here as the rest of you," finished Lauren.
A new voice joined the conversation. "Hello, Lauren. … Katie … Alice."
"Miss Pargeter!" For a moment, Lauren seemed put out.
Alison turned to gaze at the former Housemistress, who, with Dani, had come to see what the fuss was about. For the first time that evening, the sparkle in Miss Pargeter's eyes was missing and her expression was stern.
Lauren recovered quickly and her smile returned, wider than before. "Well, well." She winked at Dani. "All the old crowd are here, I see. Did you know your best friend is a dyke, Dani?"
She turned to her companions. "Hey, maybe Dani knew all along. Maybe she's a dyke too. And what about Zoe? They were always hanging out together, weren't they? Inseparable, as I recall. Perhaps they were into threesomes?" She laughed loudly at her own joke.
Alison could feel Summer's tension growing.
"Lauren," rebuked Miss Pargeter.
The laughter stopped abruptly and Lauren turned almost fiercely on the grey-haired woman. "Hey, Miss P, I've got news for you. What you say doesn't matter. You're not in charge any more."
Summer growled softly, and Dani rolled her eyes at Alison. Miss Pargeter, however, appeared unperturbed. "I see your manners haven't improved any, young lady."
"Do you want me to get Tonio and Marcello to throw them out?" murmured Summer in Alison's ear.
For a moment she was tempted. But she had read a lot about bullying since leaving school, including the fact that many bullies, when challenged, would back down. Great theory. Wonder if it works in practice?
She took a deep breath. "Your invitations didn't go missing, Lauren." She tried to ignore her pulse, which was going like the clappers. "Zoe and I decided not to invite you." A faint gasp went up from the onlookers.
"Oh, yeah?" Lauren took a step toward Alison, only to pull up short as Summer released her grip on Alison's waist and stepped into the bully's path. Lauren stared up into icy blue eyes, and seemed to hesitate at what she found there. Then the bravado was back. "Get out of my way, dyke."
Alison rested a hand on her lover's back, feeling the tension in the muscles. "It's OK, Summer. Let me handle this." Summer looked over her shoulder, questioningly. "I need to do this," added Alison.
Summer frowned but stepped aside.
"Every school has its bullies. I suppose it's inevitable," continued Alison, stepping forward until she was standing eye to eye with Lauren. "And you three," - she glanced at Katie and Alice - "unfortunately, were ours."
It's just like a duel, she thought absently. Pistols at dawn. Dani, Summer, and Miss Pargeter are my seconds, while Katie and Alice are Lauren's. She hoped it wouldn’t come down to a real fight. She had never been much good at fighting.
"This Reunion is supposed to be a celebration of the happy times we shared." Alison jutted her jaw. "Ten years ago, all you did was make our lives miserable, Lauren. Why would anyone in their right mind want you here tonight?"
Someone nearby gave a muffled "hear, hear," and Lauren shot them a furious glance.
"You gonna let her talk to us like that?" hissed Katie.
"Yeah," added Alice. "She should show some respect."
"Alison only gives her respect to those who earn it," growled Summer.
"Oh yeah?" said Lauren aggressively. "And what would a couple of perverts know about respect?"
Alison caught her breath. "What did you say?"
Her tone made Lauren pause, then the bully continued truculently, "You heard me. You and your scarlet woman here," - Katie and Alice sniggered - "are a couple of perverts."
"Call me what you like," said Alison, feeling her hold on her temper fraying, "but leave Summer out of it."
"Summer!" Lauren gave a bark of laughter. "What kind of a pervy name is that?"
This time is was Alison who growled, and Summer shot her a concerned look. "'Sticks and stones'," said Summer softly. "It doesn't matter."
"It does to me," said Alison, just as softly.
She turned back to Lauren. "I said lay off her, Lauren, and I meant it." The refreshment trestle table was nearby, she noticed suddenly, and on it was a bowl of trifle. An idea began to form.
"Girls, please!" said Miss Pargeter, but everyone ignored her.
"Summer's a pervert, a pervert, a pervert …." chanted Lauren in a singsong voice. "Alison's a pervert -"
"Why don’t you just leave," interrupted Summer, her voice calm. "Before you say something you regret."
Alison edged towards the table, her movement bringing her a puzzled glance from Summer. The trifle proved to be too far away, so Alison chose something closer to hand.
"Get lost, Lauren," called out someone.
"Yeah, we don't want you here," said Dani.
"We'll go when we're good and ready," said Lauren. "But first I'm going to sample the food."
It was too good a cue to miss. "Sample this!" said Alison, and, pushing a startled Summer aside, she shoved the plate of vol-au-vents at Lauren's face.
"Mmmmph!" For a moment, suction made the plate cling to its target, then it dropped away and hit the floor with a dull thud. Flakes of puff pastry and streaks of mushroom-and-bacon filling now covered Lauren's eyebrows, nose, and chin.
Not a good look on her, thought Alison judiciously.
Her heart was pounding furiously, and it picked up even more when Lauren, Katie, and Alice all rushed towards the refreshment table.
Oh no, thought Alison. What have I started?
Summer's initial impulse was to let the Reunion guests fight it out among themselves.
It might even help to clear the air. This bullying thing has gone way past its sell-by date.
She watched Alice pick up some soft baps and pelt Alison as if the blonde were the coconut at a fairground shy. Her expression tense, Alison dodged the first missile, then she looked round, paused momentarily, and stooped. When she straightened, she was clutching a foam baseball bat and had a broad grin on her face.
Summer raised an eyebrow. Doesn't that belong to Maks?
Alison swung, the bat connecting crisply with a bap. "Fore!"
The roll zoomed over Summer's head and splattered against a loudspeaker. "Nice shot!"
"Thanks," called the blonde. "I used to be in the school Rounders team. Knew it would come in handy some day!"
The blonde batted another bread missile from Alice away, then a series of plastic knives and forks began flying towards her.
Summer's amusement vanished. "Hey!" She turned, identified the culprit, and somersaulted towards Katie, intending to wrestle the potentially dangerous implements from her.
As she landed directly in front of the bully, Katie shrieked, dropped the plastic cutlery, and hid under the trestle table.
Summer shrugged. That's just as good. She turned to survey the scene again … in time to spot Lauren reaching for a plate of sausages on sticks. Sausages: OK. But cocktail sticks? No way!
She surged forward and took Lauren's wrist in a powerful grip. "Uh uh," she growled. "Drop it."
The plump woman turned blazing eyes on her but refused to let go of the plate.
"I said: Drop it … before you put someone's eye out."
Lauren was panting with effort and anger. "Get off me, you fucking dyke!"
"Let go." Summer tightened her grip. Lauren's wrist must be hurting by now.
Abruptly, the other woman lowered her gaze and released the plate. It landed with a faint thud, and chipolata sausages rolled everywhere.
Satisfied, Summer released Lauren. She straightened and turned, seeking Alison.
"Look out," called Miss Pargeter.
Something smashed into the back of Summer's head, and she staggered slightly. "What the …?" She turned around, barely avoiding stepping in the mess of trifle at her feet, but Lauren was already out of reach, heading swiftly for the Big Top's exit. Beside her ran Katie and Alice. Summer shrugged. Good riddance.
Alison came up beside her. "Are you OK?"
Summer could feel something trickling down the back of her neck, and she reached back apprehensively. "I'm fine." She examined her trifle covered fingers then waggled them at Alison. "Just a dent in my pride, that's all."
Alison bent her head and began licking off the custard, whipped cream, and chopped nuts. The warm mouth and swirling tongue on Summer's fingers made her feel like melting into a puddle on the floor.
Green eyes regarded her knowingly.
I'll get you for this! Summer promised her torturer silently, only vaguely aware of the plates and food flying around them in all directions.
"It wasn't Lauren," came Miss Pargeter's voice. "She's a bully but she plays fair. It was Katie."
Alison released Summer's fingers hastily, and her cheeks flushed a becoming shade of pink. "Um, it was Katie who did what?"
"Who brained Summer with the trifle," explained Miss Pargeter. "Still, I think it was their parting shot. They seem to have gone now."
Miss Pargeter ducked as a plate of prawns went flying overhead. She sighed. "I don’t think you really considered the consequences of throwing those vol-au-vents, did you, Ali?"
"Um, no." Alison shot Summer a rueful glance.
"Still." The older woman surveyed the melee of whooping and yelling old girls (and their bemused partners) who were now hurling every piece of food they could get their hands on at one another. "They're having a good time." She seemed torn between exasperation and amusement.
A slice of cheesecake plopped onto Summer's boot. She stooped and sampled the squishy remnant, glancing pointedly at Alison as she licked her finger lasciviously. "Lemon."
Alison looked away quickly, but not before a gurgle of laughter had escaped her lips. Summer grinned and straightened.
"If we were at school," continued Miss Pargeter, "I’d say let it continue for a few more minutes, then put a halt to it before someone gets hurt." She eyed Summer who was nodding in agreement. "Only trouble is, as Lauren pointed out, I have no authority anymore. And anyway - who would hear me above the din?"
Alison tensed, and Summer followed her gaze to the entrance of the Big Top where a horrified looking Veronica Carmichael was surveying the proceedings, one hand clasped to her mouth.
"Mother!" breathed Alison. "Look at her. She's furious!"
"Well, we have lowered the tone of the neighbourhood, somewhat," said Summer dryly.
Dani came careering past, clutching the half full punch bowl protectively to her chest. "This is great, Ali," she called. "We never get to do this kind of thing at the Embassy."
"Hey, Dani," called Summer. "I wouldn’t mind a glass of -" But Dani had already disappeared into the heaving crowd. Summer shrugged, and helped herself to some smoked salmon which had miraculously landed right side up.
An elbow dug into her ribs. "Hey!" she protested.
"Summer. This is serious. My mother will never speak to me again. Any bright ideas how we stop this?" asked Alison. "Could Tonio and Marcello quieten things down?"
Summer chewed her salmon and considered. "By threatening to punch a few heads, you mean? No, I don’t think so." She looked around quickly, assessing and dismissing items such as tables and chairs, until her gaze fell on the food table and a stack of unused paper plates. Aha! She grinned at Alison. "We need to get their attention … and I think I know just the way to do that."
She strode towards the table, Alison and Miss Pargeter hard on her heels.
"What are you going to do, Summer?" persisted Alison.
Summer hopped up onto the table and reached for a plate. "Watch and learn."
She squinted, calculated, then threw.
The first paper Frisbee whooshed by barely half an inch in front of Dani's nose, and the diplomat jerked back, toppling onto the woman behind her and getting thoroughly soaked by the contents of the upturned punch bowl in the process.
Alison clapped a hand to her mouth, stifling a laugh.
The second paper plate went whizzing into a tent pole, cannoned off that onto a loud speaker, then ricocheted and was last seen disappearing out the exit. Most gazes were by then anxiously following the plates' progress, and already the boisterous activity and noise levels had lessened so that Summer could hear The Bangles singing over the sound system.
She reached for another plate. Third time's a dream. The paper Frisbee flew straight and true, arrowing towards a pompous looking man with overly neat jet black hair.
"Oh no!" Alison's eyes bulged.
"It'll only skim the top of his …." Summer's reassurances trailed off as the missile grazed the man's crown, taking his toupee with it.
Accompanied now by a howl of protest and shrieks of merriment and surprise, the hairy flying object continued its journey. People everywhere began ducking and diving, as the bizarre looking Frisbee whistled on, heading straight for the console at the far end of the Big Top.
"Duck," someone shouted at the DJ.
He was still wearing his headphones, though, and couldn’t hear the warnings. "What?"
"Duck," yelled Alison, almost deafening Summer.
"It's all right," said Summer confidently. "I wasn't aiming for him."
Alison turned to her. "Then what were you aiming for?"
She pointed. "The turntable on the right."
Sure enough, as they watched, the flying toupee, which was rapidly losing momentum, began to descend. It landed neatly on the specified turntable, brushing aside the pickup arm with a shriek of feedback.
The Bangles' lead singer stopped singing abruptly, and the DJ gaped at the thing spinning on his turntable. His eyes rolled up in his head, and he fell over backwards..
For a moment, it was deathly quiet in the Big Top, the only sound the hissing from the sound system, then someone began to clap slowly, and pretty soon everyone was joining in.
Summer, who had been reaching for another plate, felt a hand on her leg and looked down to see a hysterical Alison looking up at her, to see nearly everyone in the Big Top looking up at her, in fact.
"You can stop now," wheezed the blonde. "I think you got their attention." Alison shook with laughter. "Oh God. Roger will never forgive us!"
"Roger?" asked Summer, confused.
"The man with the toupee."
The clapping changed to wolf-whistles and cheers.
"Great floor show," called a bedraggled Dani. "Can you do it again, Summer?"
A wave of laughter greeted the remark. Summer smirked and took a bow, then belatedly remembered the object of the exercise.
She stepped forward and raised her voice. "Food fight's over, people." Groans and protests met her remark, and she looked slyly at Miss Pargeter then added, "Because Miss Pargeter says so." The groans turned to cheers.
The groggy DJ was being helped to his feet, Summer noticed from the corner of her eye. Beside him stood the man Alison had called Roger, one hand clapped to the top of his head, hiding his nakedness. As she watched, the DJ picked up the toupee gingerly between his finger and thumb and handed it to Roger, who stalked, dignity precariously intact, out of the marquee.
Summer sighed. She should go and apologize, she supposed. Instead, she caught the DJ's attention and raised an eyebrow. He blinked then gave her a thumbs up sign. She flashed him her 100 watt smile, then regretted it when he seemed to go all wobbly again.
"So it's back to the scheduled entertainment," continued Summer to her audience. "Maestro," she signalled at the DJ, "music please."
He did something, and once more the sound of 'Eternal Flame' echoed round the Big Top.
Job done, Summer jumped down from the trestle table, and for a few minutes allowed people to slap her on the back. Then she made her way to where Alison and Miss Pargeter were patiently waiting.
Alison watched the Reunion guests pick themselves up and sedately brush each other down. "That's better," she said.
"Yes, well done, Summer," said Miss Pargeter.
The former Housemistress stayed with them for a while longer, then headed off to talk to some of the old girls looking eagerly her way.
Alison glanced up at Summer, grinned, and draped her arms round the ringmaster's neck. "Now, where were we?"
Summer placed her hands on her lover's waist and pulled her close. "Here?"
'Eternal Flame' finished to be replaced with something very familiar. Summer looked sharply at the DJ. He grinned at her and gave her a thumbs up. She nodded her thanks.
"Hey." Alison's voice was muffled against Summer's chest. "Isn’t this what we were dancing to when we were so rudely interrupted?"
"Sway and surrender to the motion, sway to the music you feel as your body lets go …," sang Mica Paris.
Summer pulled Alison closer and eased her thigh between the blonde's legs, grinding into her slowly. A gasp met her actions, then Alison was looking up at her, pulling her deep into her green gaze ….
By the time the last bars of 'Sway' had died away, Summer was feeling distinctly overheated … not to mention randy. And by the look of Alison's dilated pupils, she felt the same.
"If I don’t get you somewhere to myself very soon," growled Summer, "there's going to be another unscheduled floor show. And this one will shock even Miss Pargeter!"
"Can't have that, can we?" Alison broke free, grabbed Summer's hand, and turned.
Summer let Alison tug her towards the exit. "Where are we going?"
"What used to be my bedroom," said Alison. "I knew there would be benefits to holding this reunion at Mother's."
"Lead on," ordered Summer urgently. "Now!"
Alison surfaced sleepily, and wondered what had woken her. She allowed herself a moment longer to enjoy the feel of familiar limbs wound round hers, the scent of Summer's skin and perfume in her nostrils, then opened her eyes … to find herself staring at the poster of Gloria Estefan she had bought ten years ago, the bookcase full of Georgette Heyer novels ….
She sat bolt upright, bringing a squawk of protest from Summer, and stared at her surroundings. This was the bedroom she had grown up in, the single bed she had slept in dreaming of the future ….
The knock at the door came again. Ah, that's what woke me.
"Alison." Her Mother's voice was muffled. "Are you awake, dear?"
Realizing she was stark naked, Alison convulsively pulled the duvet up to her chin, baring Summer's feet and calves in the process. "Um … yes, Mother," she called.
"Whassup?" asked Summer sleepily.
"Shhhhh! Mother'll hear you."
Summer's blue eyes opened and she blinked in puzzlement, then understanding dawned. "Too late for that." She stretched like a cat and yawned.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," - Summer sat up next to Alison, her nakedness and nearness a powerful distraction -, "her bedroom's right next to yours, right?"
"Right." A beat. Oh God! Alison felt herself flushing. "Right!"
"I've brought you some breakfast," continued her Mother through the door. "Shall I bring it in?"
"No!" shrieked Alison, drawing an amused glance from Summer. "Um, no," she repeated more calmly. "Leave it outside the door, will you?" Belatedly she realized how ungrateful she must sound. "Thanks, Mother."
"Breakfast in bed," mused Summer. "Does she usually do that?"
"Occasionally," admitted Alison, slipping out of bed. She drew the curtains and looked out into the back garden - it was another fine sunny day - then began rummaging through the wardrobe for an old dressing gown. "I stay here so rarely these days, she tends to make a fuss of me when I do."
Suitably decent once more, she opened the door and peered out. The coast was clear so she grabbed the tray and scuttled back to safety.
"Mmmm." Summer eyed the two servings of tea and poached egg on buttered toast appreciatively. "Looks good. I could eat a horse."
Alison placed the tray on the bedside table, then carefully scooted under the duvet again. She made herself comfortable, and pulled the tray onto her lap. "Eat up, then."
Summer helped herself to one of the plates and some cutlery.
"'Cause today you’re going to need all your mphmgy," continued Alison, taking a mouthful of toast.
"My what?" Summer eyed her curiously.
Alison swallowed. "Energy."
"You did wear me out last night," admitted Summer, the corner of her mouth quirking. "Haven't slept this late in ages." As she ate, Summer inspected their surroundings. "So, this was your bedroom, eh? Bet you had a lot of fantasies in this bed."
Alison nodded. "None of them included you, though."
"No?" Summer punctured her egg with her fork and dipped the toast in the runny yolk.
"Must you do that?"
"Yep." Summer was unrepentant. "So, who did you fantasize about?"
Alison felt a little embarrassed. "The usual."
"You know. Butch biker chicks, devastatingly attractive secret agents, rich sexy rock stars …." She considered for a moment. "Funny. I never thought about it before, but they were always tall, dark … and dominating."
Summer didn’t rise to the bait. "No ringmasters?"
"No, I probably didn't know such exotic beings existed." Her food finished, Alison placed her knife and fork together neatly on her plate and sipped her tea. "What about you?"
Summer shrugged. "My fantasies were pretty much 'the usual' too."
"Short, blonde, and submissive?"
Summer gave her a mock glare. "Submissive?"
"I would say amenable."
"Open to suggestion. Or just simply … open!"
Summer threw Alison a saucy grin and she found herself blushing hotly. "Wet dreams in other words." She strove for equanimity.
"Oh, very wet." Summer buried her grin in her cup of tea.
Alison harrumphed for a moment then changed the subject. She clasped her hands behind her head and leaned back against the headboard. "You know, it’s weird. You and me together like this, in my bed, in this room. Mother bringing us breakfast in bed …."
"Bad weird or good weird?"
"Just … weird. Like seeing a familiar face in an unfamiliar place …. Do you know what I mean? It's … unexpected, disconcerting." She turned to Summer. "You'd feel the same if we were in your home, in the bedroom you had as a kid."
"I never had a room of my own, Alison. I had to share with Robbie and we could hardly move for all his clutter - toy cars, marbles, soldiers, you name it …." Summer trailed off, her expression suddenly melancholy.
Alison stroked the ringmaster's arm, trying to convey her support and understanding - she knew Summer still thought about her younger brother a lot, but hoped the memory was growing less painful over time.
Summer gave her a grateful smile then sighed and shook her head. "Anyway," she continued after a moment, "that particular caravan was never really a home, and it's probably just so much scrap by now." She stopped and examined her fingernails intently. "Do you miss it?"
Alison frowned at the non sequitur. "Miss what?"
"Having a home. I mean, we spend one night in your flat, the next in my caravan … and that never stays in one place long enough for you to call it home."
Summer's tone was deceptively idle, and Alison gazed keenly at her. "Does that bother you?"
"That I can't give you a proper home?" Summer fiddled with her cutlery then seemed to come to a decision. "Yeah, it bothers me." She glanced at Alison. "It would be different if I had a steady job with a decent salary. I could get us a nice place, then, and come home to you every night -"
Alison had the feeling this worry had been bubbling away beneath the surface for quite a while. Steady job … decent income …. Understanding dawned.
"Oh, Summer." She moved the tray onto the floor and turned to face the other woman. "Is this what the last three weeks have been about? Earning enough to provide me with a stable home?"
Summer's brows drew together. "I know I'm not much of a catch, Alison. I know you must have dreamed about a nice house in the country, nice furnishings, nice -"
Alison pressed two fingers to Summer's lips. "No," she said firmly. "Never."
Summer removed the finger gently. "But everyone does, hon." Her gaze was sombre. "Everyone wants what their parents had only better …."
"Not me." Alison sighed, and stroked Summer's cheek. "Don’t you understand? That's not what 'home' means to me at all."
The blue eyes were confused now. "But -"
"No." Alison shushed her again. "Home is you, Summer. Wherever you are … in a caravan, or a flat, or …" - she gestured to the blue-and-white marquee visible through the window, "… a tent in the back garden."
Summer's mouth quirked at her description of the Big Top.
"That's all I need," continued Alison. "You're all I need."
Tension seemed to drain from the dark haired woman and she leaned over and kissed Alison. Alison relished the tenderness of the kiss and was content not to deepen it. At last, with a sigh, Summer drew back.
Alison smiled. "So if you want to change your career," she said, "then do it. But do it because you want to, because it will make you happy, not because you think you should, or you think I expect you to."
Before Summer could answer, Alison nipped out of bed, crouched by the bag containing her clothes and found the letter from Jack Baron that had been burning a hole in her pocket for the past fortnight.
Now's as good a time as any. She leaped back into bed and snuggled up against a puzzled Summer.
"Here." She handed the ringmaster the letter. "This is for you."
She suppressed a satisfied smile as she saw Summer's eyes widen at the contents of the letter, at the promise from the Film Studio boss himself.
Then Summer was turning to her, her eyes glistening, her mouth working but no words coming out.
"Hey, it's OK," said Alison softly. "I just wanted you to know that if you do decide to go into the stunt business, then I'm with you all the way. But if you don't …." She shrugged. "I'm very happy as we are, Summer. Happy with you. Can you understand that?"
Summer swallowed audibly, and finally managed to smile. "Yeah," she said. "I may be a bit slow on the uptake, hon, but even this thick old ringmaster finally understands."
She leaned over to kiss Alison again, and this time, there were no more words ….
When Summer and Alison finally emerged from the bedroom, carrying the tray of dirty breakfast dishes, it was to find a house awash with still snoozing old girls who'd spent the night in sleeping bags on whatever soft furniture or floor space they could find.
Alison goggled at Summer. "They were meant to go home last night."
Summer shrugged. "They must've been too drunk."
Simultaneously, they both said, "The punch!"
As they stepped gingerly over the sleeping bodies, Summer was reminded of the obstacle course at Geoff Wyatt's stunt school. She grinned, but when Alison looked enquiringly at her, merely shook her head. "Nothing."
In the kitchen, they found a rather glum Veronica Carmichael and a perky Miss Pargeter gossiping over tea and biscuits.
"Mother," said Alison. "I'm so sorry. They weren't meant to stay overnight."
"It's all right, dear," said Alison's mother mournfully. "The neighbours are already not speaking to me. What's one more little upset?"
Alison began to laugh. "Oh, Mother." The blonde crossed the kitchen and gave her mother an affectionate kiss on the cheek followed by a warm hug that clearly startled the more reserved woman. "I do love you."
Veronica Carmichael smiled, the expression transforming her normally severe face into something much more attractive. "I know you do, dear."
"And we can never thank you enough for letting us pitch the Big Top here," added Summer sincerely. "It really saved our bacon."
"My bacon, you mean." Alison wrinkled her nose at Summer. "After all, I'm the one who volunteered to organize the pesky thing."
"If I remember Zoe," piped up Miss Pargeter, who had been watching their interaction with interest, "you didn’t stand much of a chance."
"You got that right," said Summer feelingly.
"Yes, but I'm all grown up now," said Alison. "I should have been able to say: No."
"Then some other poor girl - and her mother! - would have been lumbered with it," said Alison's mother. "At least you had Summer to help you out." She turned to Summer. "Thank you, dear."
Breakfast in bed and now 'Dear'? Summer eventually managed to close her mouth. "Um, you’re very welcome, Mrs Carmichael."
"As for that scamp, Dani …." continued Miss Pargeter.
"Dani." Alison looked round for her friend. "Where is that girl?"
"Let's go look," suggested Summer. She waited while Alison gave her mother another hug then took the door leading to the back garden.
They found the dishevelled diplomat in the Big Top, surveying her surroundings with awe. More sleeping guests were sprawled on the food spattered tarpaulin in between the now listing trestle tables and chairs.
"It looks like the Somme!" whispered Dani as they approached.
Summer glanced at Alison, who had gone pale. "It's not that bad," she soothed.
"You're kidding!" said Alison.
"No, I've seen far worse. Some of the school kids on coaches we've had … well, you wouldn’t believe the mess they leave left behind."
"But they're little kids, Summer," said Alison. "This was a bunch of twenty-eight-year-olds!"
Summer shrugged. "Big kids."
Where did they get the sleeping bags?" Alison looked at Dani.
"Don’t ask me."
Summer thought they seemed rather familiar. "I'd guess they're Grig's handiwork."
"Grig?" asked Alison.
"He helped out when you two disappeared last night …." Dani paused and gave them a speculative look. "Hey, where did you two get to last night?"
Alison gave an embarrassed cough, and Summer focussed on the apex of the Big Top and whistled soundlessly. She glanced at Dani to see if her ploy was working, and when she realized it wasn't gave her a shit eating grin.
Dani chuckled. "Well, I'm glad someone had fun last night. I had to sing the School Song a cappella - which is no fun, believe me. And I also," - she looked aggrieved - "had to sleep on the floor because someone - well, three people actually - was already sleeping in the bed Ali's mother set aside for me!"
"Well it was your own fault," said Alison unsympathetically..
"If you hadn't given them that punch …."
The diplomat looked guilty. "Sorry," she said. "It was Joby's recipe."
"Joby?" asked Summer.
"My American fiancé. He can get a bit wild at times."
A thought struck Summer and she laughed aloud, causing several sleepers to mutter and turn over.
"What's so funny?" hissed Alison.
"I was just imagining what would have happened if Dani's 'significant other' had attended the Reunion with her," she explained.
"Thanks very much!" protested Dani.
Summer grinned, deciding she liked Alison's old school friend a lot. "You’re welcome."
Someone behind them groaned, and the three women turned as one to watch while a figure in a sleeping bag (It looked like a special effect from The Mummy, thought Summer.) tried to sit up, then thought better of it and lay down again. Moments later, loud snores issued from the sleeping bag.
"Actually," said Dani, "I don’t think the punch was all my fault. I'm sure someone spiked it."
Alison sighed. "Quite likely."
Summer pursed her lips. "Damn. All these sleeping uglies! I was hoping to get the Big Top pulled down this morning. Then there's the litter. Grig's got some brooms and binbags …."
"Dani and I can make a start," suggested Alison.
"That's right, Ali," grumbled Dani. "Volunteer me, why don’t you? After all, I only have a thundering hangover and think I'm going to be sick."
She did look slightly unwell, thought Summer. She snapped her fingers. "Miss Clio."
Alison rolled her eyes. "Miss Clio what?"
"Miss Clio has a surefire hangover cure. I'll drive over and get it. She's only a mile down the road."
She kissed Alison on the mouth, waved cheekily at Dani, then hurried away, intending to drive to the field where Grig had obtained permission to park the circus vehicles overnight.
As she walked, her keen hearing picked up every word of the exchange that followed.
"Whoo!" said Dani. "That's some woman you've got yourself there, Ali. Those paper plates, last night. Fantastic!"
"Yeah." Alison's smug tone brought a smile to Summer's lips. "She has many skills."
Alison eyed the huge pile of black bags now awaiting collection by the council refuse lorry - she and Dani had managed to fill thirty in all. A job well done, she decided. She put away their brooms and rubber gloves, sent Dani to the kitchen for a well-earned cup of coffee, and went in search of Summer.
The ringmaster was in the drive, directing operations like a military commander. Alison wouldn’t have been surprised if Summer didn’t have a mental checklist which went something like:
Objective: get comatose guests up and walking (staggering will do)
Objective: administer the world's most disgusting (and also most effective) hangover cure to said guests
Objective: reunite befuddled old girls with errant spouses/partners and luggage (if applicable)
Objective: despatch said old girls and said spouses/partners to correct destination
Whatever … it looked like all objectives had been achieved in record time, and Summer was even now shepherding the final chattering group of three into one of the circus's vans.
Alison went to join her. "All under control?"
Summer nodded. "Fine." She closed the door on the last passenger and stood back. "OK, Grig. You're all set. Take her away." She slapped the vehicle's roof twice.
As the van began to reverse, the rear door popped open and a blonde head poked out. "Hey, Ali," called Grace Howard.
"Yes?" Alison stepped forward.
"It's been the best reunion ever!"
"Glad you enjoyed yourself."
The door closed.
Alison followed the vehicle down the drive, and Summer joined her. The van's passenger door popped open next, and she grinned as this time a bearded face peered out.
"I had a great time, Ali," yelled Sam, waving. "Thanks!" The door slammed shut.
As Grig checked the coast was clear and backed the van out into the road, Alison noticed a knot of neighbours standing on the grass verge casting disapproving looks in their direction. It could be a while before her Mother managed to smooth all their ruffled feathers, she thought guiltily.
The rear door opened again and Grace's blonde head reappeared. "I hope you'll be organizing the Reunion next year too, Ali," she called.
The van and its waving passengers were half way down the road before she found her voice. "Over my dead body!"
She started as an arm draped itself around her shoulders and she looked up into Summer's face.
"Fine," said Alison. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing much." Summer shrugged. "Just your appalled expression."
"Ha bloody ha!"
They strolled back up the drive and round via the side gate to the back of the house where Summer's pull-down crew was dismantling the Big Top with deceptive ease - the circus had to be in Southampton tomorrow and was travelling down today.
Alison gazed sadly at her Mother's flattened lawn, at the holes where the tent pegs had been hammered in. "Just look at the state of it. I'll be lucky I don’t get struck out of my Mother's will!"
"The grass'll grow back," soothed Summer.
"If it doesn't, we can always borrow Roger's toupee."
Alison giggled at the bizarre image.
"Your Mother," began Summer, then stopped.
Alison turned to her and raised an eyebrow. "My Mother what?"
"She … um, she surprised me this morning."
"Me too." Alison slipped an arm round Summer's waist. "I think she's starting to like you."
Summer's face lit up like a child's at Christmas. "Yeah!"
"Cooee. Summer. Ali."
They turned to find Miss Pargeter hurrying towards them. She was back in her dress and blazer again, and had her overnight bag slung over one shoulder. "I'm not late, am I? Only, Veronica and I got so engrossed talking. If Dani hadn't interrupted .…"
'Veronica'? Uh oh. First name terms. "Were you talking about Summer and me, by any chance?" asked Alison.
"Now Ali," reproved Miss Pargeter, a twinkle in her eye. "That would be telling."
I'll have to grill Mother later, she decided.
The former Housemistress regarded Summer expectantly.
"No. You’re not late," confirmed the ringmaster. "We've got plenty of time to get to Staverton before your flight. Drunk drivers permitting, Miss P."
"I sincerely hope we don’t meet another of those, Summer. And who is this mysterious Miss P?" Miss Pargeter raised an offended eyebrow, but Alison could tell the older woman was faking it, and Summer's smirk showed she could too.
Miss Pargeter turned to Alison ."Well, Ali. That was some Reunion!"
"Rather more exciting than I planned," she admitted dryly.
"I probably wouldn't have handled Lauren and her friends quite like that, but it did the trick dear. Very well done."
"Thanks." The praise sent a warm glow through Alison, and she exchanged a pleased smirk with Summer. I won't be dodging those three when I see them in town anymore either.
"Right." Miss Pargeter turned to the ringmaster. "Shall I wait in the van for you, Summer?"
"Please. It's parked out front."
The older woman nodded and walked away
Summer turned to face Alison. "Grig'll be around for a while longer, making sure everything's shipshape. So you can finish up here and drive Dani back to Cheltenham now, if you want."
Alison considered. "I'll hang on for a bit. I want to talk to Mother again before we leave."
Summer seemed reluctant to leave. "Hadn't you better get going?" said Alison gently. "Miss Pargeter's waiting."
"I should." The ringmaster hesitated.
"What is it?"
"Well, I know tonight is Dani's last night, and you and she probably have plans -" Summer trailed off.
"That's right. But we can change them, no problem. Dani likes you, she won’t object." She wrinkled her nose at Summer, easily guessing the direction of her thoughts since her own were heading the same way. "Why - were you thinking of coming back to Cheltenham tonight and going on to Southampton tomorrow morning?"
Summer nodded rather sheepishly. "Yeah. Would you mind?"
Alison laughed and pulled Summer close, stretching up and kissing the tip of her nose. "Of course not."
Summer breathed a sigh of relief. "Great. Then I'll drop Miss P off at the airport and after that head home and meet you there."
"Home." Alison tasted the word and smiled. "I like the sound of that," she said.
Summer returned her smile. "Me too."
A big thank you to my fellow bards Advocate and Midgit who kindly beta read this story for me.
Thank you also to WolfDragon, whose Uber Daredevil Hearts supplied the details of 'fire burns'.