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26 October 2012

Hi everyone. My goodness I do love this time of year! I love the crisp weather, I do not even mind if it rains a lot, I love to see haloween decorations going up in houses and shops, then we have bonfire night to look forward to, and from where we live, if I look out of the den window I can see a magnificent display of fireworks from a castle which is not too far away from us. Soon after that it will be L’s birthday and with the hand’s help and a little bit of luck that is going to be a lot of fun, and then it will be all downhill to getting ready for Christmas. I am really looking forward to that, let us hope I am fully conscious for it this year, I will certainly be taking no mad dashes across busy roads you can be sure!

Of course, in my home colony things are getting harder all the time, foraging is getting more difficult, it is getting harder to keep warm, but experienced leps with common sense and ingenuity can manage ok. It’s the poor and the feckless who are hardest hit by the Autumn and Winter months. My word! I really had better stop this rambling and get on with the news.

By the time I had finished writing my last entry it was far too late to do anything but hurry to help get ready for Down for Double. It was a nice show and we all enjoyed it. Afterwards we had our usual pizza, wine, music and relax session, which, being so particularly contented these days, I enjoyed more than usual. After that I was ready to send a goodnight text to a certain person and fall into bed.

The following morning I was up at my usual time. I found my usual little scroll on my pillow and reached for it eagerly, I always love to hear news from Babsy.

“Dear Uncle Bert”

“I hope you are in good health and that the helping hand is serving you well. I am in good health and have received a good report this week.”

“Guess what, Uncle. Blissa, Leanna, Shariell and all the lot of them had a huge fight, they was all in it, an they all had to go to Madam Lynnara. Me an Kryss was good, we stayed out of it an we both got merits. Uncle, I really hate putting that hot thing on the clothes to make them flat, it’s stupid! Why couldn’t them humans make clothes what doesn’t get all crumples? You’d think with all the things they does they could’ve made stuff what wouldn’t crumple up in that stupid machine an then we wouldn’t have to spend hours an hours squishin it down flat after. Humans is stupid I said it a undred times.”

“May the sun shine on you an all that blah blah doodly dum dee, they can’t give me a mark cos I’m just too good an clever an very modest!”

“Love B.”

Oh that ling makes me laugh! She is going to make someone a wonderful worker one of these fine days! I started Monday in the usual gale of giggles, wrote back to Babsy and then got on with the day.

After I had made breakfast, we had eaten it cosily around the table in the den and I had cleared it away, I got ready to head for the colony. I was very much looking forward to going home for a number of reasons, as well as being very curious. My frozen-faced sister Gwenice was due to arrive home today, and I very much wondered why. Apart from Pattianne’s ceremony she had not been home for more than fleeting Saint Patrick’s day visits for a very long time and this out of the blue turning up just did not feel right.

I arrived at the colony at just before ten to find Tealy already there. It was a cold day and she was looking warm and pretty in a long turquoise coat which was just the same colour as her eyes. She wore long, slim, supple leather boots which exactly matched, silvery heart bobbles in her ear hair and more of them on her bangles. I wanted to give her a hug but I felt all thumbs and anyway was it done in elf culture? I had my cap on, so my ears were getting no kisses this morning. Unless I took it off, which would look pointed. Oh zlendt, I thought, this girlfriend thing was zlenky complicated!

I was just dithering there, looking like an idiot, when the whole thing was taken out of my hands. Tealy came forward, hugged the breath out of me, swept my cap off, kissed both my ears not just one. My gosh, how I didn’t fall down flat I’ll never know. Then she burst into a peal of giggles.

“What?” I asked, slightly grumpily.

“Your face, darling!” she said. “You were looking at me as if I was a distillation you were trying to mix for the first time, as if you had no idea what to do! Surely at your age you must have kissed a hundred ears! And by the way, mine are still waiting.”

What on earth could I say? Where did I start explaining? A hundred broken fragments of sentences flashed through my mind. Lep culture, Shana-Sherin, training then work, but I pushed them all away. Standing in the cold outside the colony was not the time to tell her that A, I had kissed no other ears, B, leps did not go in for displays of affection in front of other leps so the only way I had ever seen it done was the human way, C, I had only ever been in love once and that was sucha complete mess, well, you get the gist. This was neither the time nor place. I attended to the ears, returned the hug, tucked my arm through Tealy’s and we went indoors, but I felt deeply troubled. This might be about to get very, very awkward!

Mum and Dad’s cube was full of bustle. Gwenice was due to arrive at about lunch time and Mum was busy stocking up with food. Tealy offered to help but for once Mum was firm. She preferred to do things herself, so we leant a hand in a more prosaic way. I helped Dad with the fetching of wood and water, moving about of furniture for the hoards of curious relatives who were sure to arrive later, and anything else that needed doing. Tealy helped Mum with the cooking, and a neat-handed little worker she turned out to be!

We did not know exactly what time Gwenice was coming so we could not go out and meet her. We just spread the table for lunch and waited, and at about half-past one the curtain moved and she was suddenly there.

I do not think I have had quite such a shock in a long time. My sister had been tall for a lep, a good inch taller than me, straight, supple and strong. When I had last seen her she was prim and neat, her sandy brown hair drawn up into a tight braided knot between her ears, her skin smoothe, her green eyes clear, her rather thin mouth firm. She wore a crisp blue skirt and white shirt. She looked the picture of good health and professionalism.

A mere six months had wrought a terrible change in her. Now her shoulders and back were stooped. The brisk walk had become a slouch, if not a stagger. Her face looked red and bloated, the eyes glazed, the mouth slack. The lank hair had been roughly pulled back and tied with a bit of old twine. Gwenice had always been thin, now she looked immaciated and her filthy, shapeless clothes hung on her.

As she staggered into the cube, Dad dropped the poker and Mum cried in horror and ran towards her.

“Gwen! Name o’ the moon, girl! What the blue typhoon…”

Then Mum stopped, lifted her head and sniffed. Then we smelt it. WE all did. The reek of bad Zair and stars know what else coming off my sister was so strong that I swear it would not have been safe to put a naked flame near her!

I felt my jaw falling open. My sister the healer, the prim, professional, never-take-chances-with-your-health healer to turn up so dead drunk that she seemed hardly to know where she was? What in the world had brought her to this pass?

For a moment we all just stood where we were, too stunned to say a word or to do anything. Then Gwenice quietly crumpled on to the floor.

“Stars almighty, look at ‘er, look!” my Dad exploded. “She’s zairred squared! Lil, we need to get ‘er clean an’ into bed. Tealy, could you give a hand, Zaea? Bert, don’t lose no time, son. Run down an’ see if Kori’s in. If not, leave a message, we need to get ‘er in ‘ere soon as soon. When you’ve done that, see if Tovey’s about an’ ask him to come down. If not, find Lina, wherever she is, son, an’ tell ‘er I need to see Tovey soon as possible. Understand?”

I understood indeed. Sometimes when you want to move fast, living in a crowded lep colony can be a real nuisance. The thoroughfare was crowded with people going home for lunch, or starting an afternoon shift of work. I battled my way through as quickly as I could and finally reached Kas and Kori’s cube. I was in luck, she was just about to start her afternoon rounds and was coming out of the door, her medical bag in hand.

I caught her arm and, in a few quick sentences, told her in what state my sister had turned up.

“Ooh, that ain’t good.” She said. “If she ‘ad glazed eyes an’a face like you say, probably means she’s drunk till it’s poisoned ‘er system thoroughly. I’ll get what I need, wait a tick.”

She vanished into the cube and was soon back. We then made our way back to Mum and Dad’s cube. People let us through when they saw Kori’s white coat and medical bag, so it did not take us nearly as long to get back.

When we arrived back I left Kori there, I could not go in anyway as the tin bath was out and Gwenice was being stripped preparatory to being put into it. It was taking everything Mum and Tealy could do, she had come round to some extent, and was showing a side of her I had not seen before and did not want to see again! Kori hurried in to lend an extra pair of hands and I went off to find Tovey.

I arrived at his house to find it cold and empty. Zlendt, I thought. I turned around and headed for Lita’s. My instincts told me that was where Lina would be and I was right. They were both there, Lina was sitting on the edge of the swing bed and Lita was lying in it with the youngling half asleep in the crook of her arm.

When I burst unceremoniously through the curtain they both looked at me resentfully.

“Lina, I need to find Tovey.” I said. “It’s urgent.”

She gave me a kind of vague look as if she did not know who I was talking about and did not care much either. I wanted to shake her.

“I don’t know where ‘e is.” She said.

“Didn’t you see him at lunch time? Did he say where he might be working this afternoon? I have to find him!”

“I ain’t seen ‘im, I tell ya!” she said, giving me a hard look. “Go an’ ask ‘is boss if you want ‘im, but get out of ‘ere, you’re waking the youngling!”

I was so mad, I could have spit fire and chewed brimstone, as L would have said! I ran off and, after a lot of trudging about, finally did manage to locate Tovey. He was piling up roots in a store room and hardly looked up as I came in.

“Tove, our Dad wants to see you as soon as you can manage it,” I said. He turned from his work and looked at me. I don’t know what I was expecting. I suppose I was expecting him to be out of sorts, sad, or putting on a face, something or other. He looked at me, and gave me that fresh, cheerful smile the same as he always had done, like he did not have a care in the world. Tovey has always been an open book. If something is worrying him, you know, you always know. He asked what was up and I told him the story, and that did shock and upset him all right, it was there on his face, plain to be seen. But there was nothing else.

When he said he’d come as soon as he had finished work I left him and started back for Mum and Dad’s feeling really puzzled. Tovey was not stupid. Did he really not know what was happening? Or did he just know and not care, surely that could not be true. I gave my head a shake. It was no business of mine anyway. Except that Tovey was one of my favourite brothers. But Tovey seemed to be fine. Oh come on, Bert, let it alone like Tealy says, I told myself fiercely and got on with what I was doing.

When I got back to the cube, things were in order and Gwen was decent, so I could safely go in. She had been tucked into one of the bunks and Kori was examining her thoroughly. She was asking Gwen questions, but Gwen seemed to be in a kind of semi-conscious stupor, or still very drunk, and she was not answering with anything more than an unintelligible mumble.

“We got to get this out of her, Lil,” said Kori. “I’ll need lots of ‘elp, an’ it won’t be pretty. She’ll be better after, but we got to try an’ find out how she got herself like this or it’ll just happen again.”

Kori mixed a thin, milky liquid from some water and several powders she had with her in her bag. No, you do not have to skip anything because I will not go into what happened for the next half hour. Suffice it to say that pretty it was not! I was kept very busy fetching water and making up the fire. Tealy helped Kori and our Mum. Dad stood guard over the door and turned away the relatives who, sure enough, came to gossip and gawp. Finally it was all over, the room was back in order and Gwen was given a draught which sent her into a deep sleep.

We had just got everything to rights when Tovey arrived. He came quietly in behind Dad and gave a sorrowful look at the huddled figure in the bunk. Then he smiled widely at the neat little figure in the straight turquoise skirt and fluffy white sweater.

“All right, Miss Tealy?” he said. “You got a sparkle in them eyes these days. You an’ Bert kissed the wish stone yet?”

At this seemingly innocent remark, Mum and Dad stopped what they were doing, looked very hard at us and then shot daggers at Tovey. Tealy gave me a questioning look and I went bright red. Zlendt, I thought! That just shows you! Comes of living among humans for so long! Just. Zlendt! I had forgotten all about kissing the Wishstone. Mind, this was the first time I had been in the colony since… so maybe it was not so bad. I would have to talk to Tealy, perhaps she would not want to kiss it. Now, what was Dad saying?

“Bert, you can ‘elp, cant’ you, son? We got to get this done before she wakes up.”

The next thing I knew I was helping Tovey hump Dad’s special Zair barrel out of his cube. We lephandled it down the crowded thoroughfare, ignored all such jeers as “Don’t mind if I do!” and “Make mine a big mug o’ that!” and finally got it to Tovey’s empty cube.

Once inside I helped Tovey to roll it into a spare corner, which took some doing as the cube was already crammed with stores and necessaries against the coming of the new arrival. As we straightened up Tovey turned to me.

“Sorry if I embarrassed you, Bert,” he said. “I was sure you’d kissed the stone.”

“It’s ok, Tove,” I smiled at him. “Fact is I clean forgot about it. WE should kiss it only Tealy doesn’t know about it. I’ll talk to her and ask if she wants to.”

“Nice elf that,” said Tovey. “She’ll make a lovely little wife for ya, Bert. Everyone loves her, an’ just think of the grub she can make! We’ll all be comin’ to your cube for dinner!”

I suddenly felt as if the floor had been pulled out from under my feet. I felt as if I was falling down into a huge black pit, dizzyingly deep, sickening. Our Cube? Tovey thought Tealy and I were going to get married and come and settle down here in the colony? If Tovey thought it, did Tealy think it too?

I suddenly thought, in one blinding flash, of leaving the lair, leaving Brian, L, my work, my home. I thought of spending my life in a lep colony or elfhold and my first reaction which had made me feel so awful just got stronger. No, no and no! I had been born to live and work with humans, it was what I had been chosen for. I could not give it up, not for anything!

Tovey was talking to me but I was not listening. WE were walking back towards Dad’s cube. Tealy, I thought wildly. I wanted to kiss the Wishstone with her, to make a wish for love that lasted lifelong. I did not want to lose her, definitely not. OH, this was just another mess, a big, complicated mess!

Quite suddenly I did not want to be there anymore. I turned to Tovey and I said: “I’m feeling awful. I need to go home. Will you tell Tealy where I’ve gone and that I’ll call her tonight.” I just zapped out, there and then, before he had a chance to answer. Luckily we were in a quietish part of the colony, not many people saw me go but I really was past caring.

I zapped into my closet and I really did think no one had heard me. L was in the den pottering about and Brian was working. I had just got my coat and cap hung up however when there came a knock at the door.

L stood there, looking at me enquiringly.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” she said. “what’s brought you back so early?”

Ok, so I am a big baby, well if you were in the kind of turmoil I was in you would have probably done what I did too. Or maybe not. Anyway, I ran up to L and hung on to her as if I was about to drown. I think I really scared her because she yelled for Brian. He was right in the middle of his work day, but he dropped what he was doing and came hurrying into the closet.

Well they got the story out of me by digrees. They are very patient people and this is not the first time nor the second that they have had to listen to my worries and woes and try to get me straightened out. When we finally had the story straight, Brian came over from where he had been perched on the edge of my desk.

“Bert,” he said. “Listen to me. L and I are not, absolutely not, going to interfere in your relationship with Tealy. That’s not to say we’re washing our hands of you, you know we’re always here for you, but if you’re going to be grown up enough to have a relationship then you have to make your own decisions and manage it yourself.”

I gave him a look of absolute blank shock. It was the last thing I had expected.

“I am just going to give you one piece of advice,” he went on. “you can never sort anything out or get anywhere if you don’t talk. However awkward you feel, it’ll get worse if you don’t communicate.”

“For example,” said L, “Where does she think you are now? Won’t she be worried at being suddenly just left? If I were you I’d give her a call. This is a good place for heart to hearts.”

They left then, leaving me with a lot to think about. I was picking up my phone to call Tealy, but I didn’t get the chance. There was a sudden zapping sound and she was there, standing in front of me looking a mixture of furious, confused and tearful.

“What’s going on?” she demanded. “Tovey said you weren’t wel. You look all right to me. Why did you run out on me like that?”

“I’m sorry, Zaea,” I said. “Please, take off your coat and sit down here with me. We really do need to have a talk.”

“Oh it’s all right, Bert!” she flashed back at me. “You needn’t say anything, I know. You don’t want to be with me anymore, you’ve thought better of it, I can tell! You had your hat on this morning, your hat! Talk about hands off! You never pet my head or touch noses. You look as if you don’t even want to touch me! I can see you don’t want to!”

“I zlanny well do want to!” I lost it in return. “But I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m a lep, Tealy, a lep, not an elf! Leps never so much as hold hands in front of each other! Before they get married they get told what’s what by their Mother or Father, otherwise it’s a closed book! I left my colony at thirteen! The only way I’ve ever seen people in love behave is the human way and I was scared if I tried that you might be frightened or disgusted, or think I was insulting you!”

She gave me a wondering kind of look from those amazing eyes.

“Zaeahana!” I went on more gently, no, I’m not translating that, work it out for yourselves will you! “I have been searching all over the lepnet for information on elf culture and interspecies relationships, there simply isn’t any. I’m all at sea here, and was just terrified of getting it wrong. Well, I got it wrong anyway.” I slumped into my desk chair feeling just wretched.

It really is quite hard to feel wretched for too long when a little person with a fluffy head comes and sits on your knee and cuddles you, tells you everything is ok and makes you feel so incredibly happy you wondered how you could ever have been sad at all.

The rest of Monday was just totally amazing. Tealy and I stayed in my closet, talking about our two cultures and a lot else. I came out to make dinner for Brian and L, and when I came back, Tealy had laid our little table and there was a gorgeous chicken pie, stuffed with succulent meat and rich gravy with pastry as light as a feather. With it we had creamy mashed potatoes and red cabbage, it was just so good! Afterwards there was chocolate fudge cake and cream. I felt so spoiled.

Tealy cleared the table with a flutter of her fingers and curled herself up next to me on the sofa. I petted her head fur in the way that she liked and felt at peace with the world in general.

“Oh I forgot to say,” she murmured. “What did Tovey mean about the Wishstone?”

My hand went still.

“Well,” I began uneasily, “It’s a thing couples do. Some do it when they’re quite young, before they think of really settling down. Some do it when they get engaged. They go to the Wishstone, it’s in the Handers’ part of the colony, and, er, kiss it.”

“But what does it mean?” asked Tealy, “Is it like a betrothal, or what?

“No, betrothal’s different, you have to register that at the Handhold and it’s very official. No, kissing the Wishstone is just making a wish.” I paused, blushing a little. “Making a wish for our love to last lifelong.”

Tealy leaned up on her elbow and looked at me.

“So it doesn’t mean we have to get married right away if we don’t feel we’re ready to?” she almost whispered.

“No, it doesn’t mean that at all.” I answered, stroking her head again. “It just binds us together, makes us special.”

“Do you want to kiss it, Zaeahana?” The question came as soft as a dawn breeze.

“Zaeahaan!” I laughed down at her. “If you’re going to speak lep, get it right, I’m not a girl! Yes, I do want to, Tealy. I want to very much.”

“Then we shall, on Sunday.” She said.

Well, it has taken me forever to describe one tumultuous day! I really had better get on. I was in bed soon after Tealy left, and you had better believe I was tired out! It seemed only a second until I was dragging myself out of bed on Tuesday morning. I went through my morning routine and booted up Nia Netbook to see what was going on. Apparently the secret about Gwen’s homecoming had leaked out on account of she was now awake, suffering withdrawal, and her screams and yells could, it was said, practically be heard from one end of the colony to the other. Oh holy moon, I thought! I was worried about Mum and Dad having to deal with that alone, they were neither of them getting any younger. I wondered if I could be spared to go and give a hand.

I went in to get breakfast and found that L was having an all right day healthwise. Brian was working from home, so I asked my question and was given immediate permission to go and help Mum and Dad. As soon as I had breakfast cleared away, therefore, I left for the colony.

I really do not want to dwell on the day I had there. It was hard work and heartbreaking to see, and in fairness to my sister I will keep most of it to myself. Mum and Dad were very glad indeed of an extra pair of hands. They both nursed Gwen with great tenderness and also firmness when it was needed, and it must have been heart rending for them.

By the time I left I was totally exhausted, but Gwen seemed to have gone into a quiet spell, she was sleeping and Mum and Dad were catching a bit of a rest while they could. I told them I was not happy about letting them do everything singlehanded and that I could not come the next day nor the one after as Brian was going to be away from home. I suggested letting Mella help them with Gwen. Now that Derry was getting stronger all the time he was well able to look after the lings so that she could come over for a few hours.

Mum and Dad agreed to this, so I said goodbye and went down to Mella’s to arrange things. Bless her, Mella was only too willing to do whatever she could to help Mum and Dad, so I was able to zap home with slightly less worries than I arrived with.

I got home to a huge surprise. I really was tired when I zapped into my closet, and I was dragging myself towards my wardrobe to hang up my things when a little figure in a dazzling pink catsuit flew at me, grabbed my cap, divested me of my coat, hung them up, escorted me to the sofa, exchanged my wet trainers for warm slippers almost before I had time to say more than “Hello!”

Well, the rest of that evening turned into another stunner. Tealy insisted on asking Brian and L if they would mind her cooking dinner as I had been worked to practically a standstill. She promised Brian it would not become a habit and he agreed to it. So she made dinner for Brian and L and then for us. When she had cleared away she could see I was practically asleep on my nose, so she soon took her leave and let me fall into my yawning bed.

On Wednesday morning Brian left for two days away. I stayed at home and took care of things. L was having a cycle of good days, so we had two nice days together, playing games, reading and talking in our usual cosy way. There was not much new in the family during that time. Mella had been helping Mum and Dad to nurse Gwenice who was still very ill but growing slowly better. Kori had been calling in a couple of times a day with various herbal potions and good advice. Everyone was gossiping fit to burst, of course, that was only to be expected. Gwenice was not generally liked in the family, which was mostly her own fault, as she never seemed to lose an opportunity to antagonise people when she visited. She always seemed to feel she was a cut above the rest of us, so there was now a certain amount of ill-natured amusement at her downfall.

On Thursday night Brian returned to us. We all caught up on each other’s news over our relax session and Brian suggested that, as the morrow was his day off, and that as he was well ahead for the next day’s show, I could easily be spared to pop back to the colony and help there if I would like to. I was really pleased to be able to help Mum and Dad another day, and let Mella go back to her cube and her husband and lings.

Friday morning brought me a surprise. I had almost forgotten all about Marni’s dissolution hearing. Now I suddenly received an official notice that the hearing would be reconvened on November 7. My presence would be required. I managed to snatch a quick call with Tealy and found that she had received an identical Email. Oh well, I thought, it will soon be over one way or the other.

As soon as I had breakfast cleared away I headed for the colony. I entered Mum and Dad’s cube to find everything in order, but Mum and Dad were looking absolutely tired out.

“Hi,” I said. “What can I do to help?”

“I got to go foragin’ son,” Dad said gloomily. “I ain’t been out since last week. As for you, Lil, you needs to sit in that chair an’ get a nap while things is quiet. Bert, watch our Gwen for us will ya? Kori’s been ‘ere an’ she’s ‘ad a potion. She’ll sleep, but she jus’ needs watchin’. You know.”

I knew indeed. I sat down beside Gwen’s bunk. Dad left to go foraging, Mum, much against her will, put up her feet and was soon snoring gently. I opened an IBook and flicked an eye at my sleeping sister once in a while, and a few quiet hours passed.

The book was a good one, and the story began to absorb me so that my glances at Gwen became less and less frequent. When a whisper from beside me said:

“Bert, is that you?” I nearly dropped my phone.

“Yes,” I whispered back. “I’m here.”

Gwen was quiet for a long time, and I thought she had gone back to sleep. I glanced down at her to make sure, and saw tears, sliding silently from beneath her closed lids.

“This is going to please everyone no end, isnt’ it, Bert?” her whisper was barely audible. “Miss Frozen Face turning up so drunk she had to have the purge. I bet they’re all just loving it!”

I stared. I did not think Gwen had ever been home long enough to hear her family nick name. That must have hurt her!

“What, you think I didn’t know that’s what you all call me?” her voice was a little stronger, but still just a thready whisper. “I always knew. I didn’t care. I had my work. Making leps better when they were sick. That was something, something real. Something I could do.”

“What do you mean, Gwenny?” I called her by her baby name. she gave a tiny breath which could have been a laugh.

“Tried to make people like me and they wouldn’t. My friends at school only wanted me because I could help with their work. Everyone thought I was odd because I wanted to learn. Tried to be good enough for Shana-Sherin and I wasn’t. I worked so hard, but I just wasn’t chosen.”

She stayed quiet for a long time, the tears sliding silently down her cheeks and into her hair. I wanted to put out my hand, hold on to her, hug her, but leps don’t do that, not when they’re grown up. Finally, she went on.

“I went into healing. I worked and worked, I wanted to go to the Old Country, only that didn’t work neither. Wasn’t the right sort, they said. They sent me to a colony out in the back of beyond and I thought it was the end of the world, but it wasn’t. I had healing, I could do it, I could make a difference there.”

“So why are you in this state now?” maybe it was not a tactful question, but if she had something she wanted to do and believed in, why throw it all into a zair barrel?

“Because they don’t want me there no more, dimwit!” her whisper was full of anguish.

“One of their own just got through training. Grew up there, he did. He came home, all ready to take up his place in the colony as the new healer, and they politely asked me to leave and make way for him. They said I could stay and help him, help him! Me that had worked my fingers to the bone for them for the past ten years! Oh Bert! How could they?”

I threw caution to the wind, knelt by her bunk and took both her hands in mine.

“Gwen, it was a rotten, dirty, lousy way for anyone to behave, but getting zaired squared isn’t going to solve anything, you’re clever enough to know that!”

She clung on to me as if she would never let go.

“I just wanted the hurting to stop.” She whispered brokenly. “I didn’t care if I went to the low country. What am I going to do now?”

“You’ve still got healing, Gwenny, if that’s what you want.” I said, giving her hands a squeeze. “You can apply to the gardens for another place.”

“I don’t know if I can,” she sniffed convulsively. “I couldn’t bear to start from scratch again, build up trust again, feel I belonged again and then just lose it all in a minute. You don’t know, Bert. The leps there, once I wasn’t a healer, no one wanted to no me anymore.”

“Then they ain’t worth crying over.”

We both whirled around. Mum was sitting up in her chair and looking at us.

“If ten years’ work an’ elp meant that little to ‘em, then all you can do is to walk away an’ go where you’re appreciated more. I ain’t sayin’ it’s easy, but you got all the courage in the world, Gwenny my girl, or you did have before you drownded it in zair.”

Mum got up and came to Gwen’s bedside. She pushed the tousled hair off Gwen’s hot face and wiped the tears away with her apron and a gentle hand.

“Now our Bert’s right. Your healing’s somefin that no one can take from you. It’s a gift, that’s what it is. You worked ‘ard to get it an’ no one can take it off ya. So if you want to go on makin’ that difference, you can.”

“And don’t forget, Gwen,” I said, “It’s not like you’re alone. Family is family. We may have our ups and downs but we stand by each other no matter what. If you want to be a part of us, you always will be.”

“Right again, our Bert. You got a home here always, our Gwen, don’t ever forget that,” said Mum. “Now, Bert, I can ‘ear your Dad comin’ back, just ‘op along an’ see if ‘e needs any ‘elp. Gwenny, you settle down an’ try to catch a bit more sleep before your next potion.”

My word! Was I tired when I finally got back to the Lair! There had been no more time for talking that day. Dad had come in fully laden, I had helped him unload his haul, put everything away, then helped chop wood, fetch water, helped cook a meal, and while we were busy Mum and Ihad brought Dad up to speed on Gwen’s story. Dad was indignant on her behalf, as were we all. Kori had been in to see Gwen early in the evening, and had said the worst of the toxins were out of her system, but that she was now weak and very low. Kori had done all she could. Now Gwen needed rest, good food and to be with those close to her, that was the best help she could have, but the rest of the cure was up to her. She had to want to get well.

Mum and Dad shook their heads at this, we all knew what it meant.

A lep’s mentality is unusual in some ways. He can work hard all his life, put up with a thousand hardships and remain mentally balanced and cheerful under any kind of disaster or reversal of fortune. And then something may suddenly break him. He may or may not turn to the zair barrel, but even if he does not, he can metaphorically speaking turn his face to the wall and refuse to go on. I have heard of humans doing that, they call it having a breakdown, they get treated for it, maybe it can ruin their lives, but it cannot physically end them as I understand it, unless they use some kind of outside means to end their own existence. For a lep it is different. If a lep loses the will to live there is nothing anyone can do: He physically just shuts down in a matter of weeks or even days. I desperately hoped we could save my sister from coming to that.

Brian and L took one look at me when I dragged myself into the den and said they were going out for dinner. I was so grateful to them. I was ready to drop where I stood. When they had set off to their favourite restaurant I called Tealy and we had a long talk, I told her all about my day and she was amazingly sympathetic. Then I just got into bed. I tried to read, but I was soon fast asleep.

Saturday was quieter than usual. L was not well enough to do her show and Brian’s was in such a state of readiness that there was no preparation to do for it. Brian and I looked after L and pottered about the house. I was glad of this quiet day because I still felt desperately tired. I had a chat to Mum on Facebook. She said Gwen was sleeping a lot and had not talked much more. Nothing much was happening with anyone else. The gossip was still continuing and I did my best to remind everyone that, whatever had happened in the past, Gwenice was our sister and families rallied round at bad times.

On Sunday morning I awoke with a groan. I absolutely did not want to go back to the colony, spend another day in that dolorous cube, make the rounds of my gossiping family. I just did not. I felt as if every mule from here to the Old Country had been kicking me.

I pulled my eyes open, and then my mouth flew open too! Tealy was sitting, calm as you please, on the end of my bed. She was wearing jeans, a fleecy candy pink sweatshirt and pink trainers. Her hair was tied in pink scrunchies and she wore her favourite pink and silver bangles. She looked so gorgeous I wanted to eat her, right there and then! I made do with a hug, a touch of her nose with mine, which I think is downright odd but she seems to like it, and petting her marvellous fluffy head.

“Good morning, sleepy ears,” she said. “You do look so sweet all snuggled up in there!”

I blushed to the tips of my ears, I can tell you!

“It’s wonderful to see you,” I managed to stutter, “But what on earth are you doing here? I have to get up! I need to get the pancakes ready!”

“Ah well,” said Tealy, dimpling roguishly, “I need to bring you up to speed with some facts. Fact 1, it is past eleven O’clock.” I would have stopped her right there, but she put a little hand over my mouth and went remorselessly on. “Fact 2, I have already made breakfast for Brian and L, who are now quite happily working in the den. Fact 3, I have Emailed your Mum and excused us from attendance at the colony today. Mella does not need me to perform the FeedMe spell anymore because Derry is now managing to do some foraging for himself and she is helping, so they are doing fine. Fact 4, I shall let you get up for a shower, but then you are going to get back into that bed, let me bring you breakfast and thoroughly spoil you. You’re looking absolutely exhausted.”

Well, what could I do? Have you ever tried arguing with a really determined elf? Because don’t!

The rest of the whole day I was just not allowed to do anything. I stayed in bed till a disgraceful time, I was fed, coseted, made a fuss of, well, spoiled rotten!

In the afternoon L tapped at the door and asked if Tealy and I would like to come into the den. She said that they, brian and L ai mean, would like to hear the latest family news and we could all have a cup of tea together while I told it.

It really was lovely to be in the den together. Tealy and I snuggled together on the Futon under the window which was plenty big enough for us, and Brian and L were on the sofa. WE sipped tea and chatted for ages, almost until we had to get ready for Double.

I took Tealy back into the closet to get ready for her to zap out, and I could not remember when I had enjoyed a Sunday more.

“Darling, do you think Gwenice will face the wall?” she asked me as she was shrugging into her soft blue coat.

“I don’t know.” I said, feeling depressed at the thought. “What she needs is something to focus on, something to make her want to go on. You can’t pull that out of the air. We can only pray to the hand that she will find it before it’s too late.”

Down for Double was a lovely fun show, after it Brian, L and I had our usual pizza, a glass of wine and a relax. Then we all went to bed early, ready for a busy week ahead.

Monday morning started with the usual little pink-tied scroll. Ooh good, I thought. Let’s see what giggles Babsy has been causing this week.

“Dear Uncle Bert.”

“I hope you are in good health and that the helping hand is serving you well. I am in good health and have received a bad report this week.”

“Uncle it wasn’t my fault really it wasn’t I just put that stupid hot thing down an went to look out the window at this red bird. When I come back there was a zlendt great burn mark right through this dress an I got such a wiggin it’s not fair Madam Mauraine says it’s silk but what’s so special about that, Kryss says silk is worm cleansings! I mean yuk! Anyway it’s all ruined an I got a black mark an I was in such a tiz that I was all crying so that recipe what said 1/2 teaspoons chilli flakes, I thought it said 12 teaspoons, wel how the zlenk should I know, an Madam Prim took one bite of that borito thing an she screamed an yelled for water and she says I done it on purpose only I never! So then I got another black mark an Blissa was laughing at me so I, well I punched her an there was a fight an I had to go to Madam Lynnara an it’s so not fair!”

“May the sun shine on you always, and the helping hand keep you from harm only I think you should have said half a teaspoon not ½”

“Babsy”

Oh dear oh dear oh dear! I felt extremely contrite that the recipe I had sent Babsy had been the cause of some of her troubles. I wrote a comforting and apologetic note back to her, then got on with the day.

Monday was quiet and uneventful. We were all busy with our own things. I had neglected housework to do, so was kept trotting to and fro for a lot of the day. Brian and L were both working at their computers. In the evening I made dinner and then had a long talk to Tealy on the phone before my usual relax session with Brian and L.

On Tuesday Brian left for a three day business trip. L also started one of her bad Migraines, so for the whole of the three days I was a combination of busy and bored. I took care of L when she needed me to and for the rest of the time pottered about, talked to family on Facebook, Skype and MSN, read, did housework, did anything I could to pass the time. Every evening I had a lovely long phone call with Tealy.

The news of Gwen, meantime, was not encouraging. She was growing steadily stronger physically, but she was quiet, depressed and listless. Mum and Kori were both worried about her. In other family news, Lina was getting extremely near her time and Tovey was getting very fidgety, but he had not tried to put his foot down and stop her spending her days at Lita’s. Barty was strutting about, roaring about the elf being allowed to give her evidence at the dissolution hearing and vowing what he would do to Marni if the case was thrown out and she was compelled by the council to return to their marital cube. Marni, meantime, said she would run away or do anything rather than do that.

We were both of us very glad to see Brian when he returned home last night. We celebrated with a very nice dinner and a long catch up. I made time for my usual phone call and arranged to meet Tealy at the colony on Sunday as usual, though if I am honest I would really rather a repeat of last week, maybe without needing to be spoiled so much.

And so we finally come to today. That never takes long to describe. I got up, checked on the family news, nothing new at all except for Kori saying old Jockie was laid up and she had more to do than usual, and made breakfast. We sat around the table with bacon, sausages, pancakes and coffee, and when we had finished I collected Nia Netbook and set to work. Here I have been ever since. I had to move into the closet when L’s parents came to visit, but I just moved and kept on writing, I have not even taken the time to peek at them as I usually do.

So now at last you are up-to-date. In a minute I shall go and make a start on some dinner. Then it will be more computer time, then my phone call, then wine, music and relaxing. You are looking at one very contented lep!

I do hope you have had a good fortnight. Thanks so much, as ever, for reading my rambles. I shall write again soon. Big smiles.

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