The Serelians gave the same thorough treatment at the border as the Aloxans did, making the girls get off of the bus while they searched for drugs and other contraband. Vannie was nervous at the whole idea of being in Serelia, made more so by the grey-haired border guard who slowed down scanning the passports to look at hers.
“Marguerite van Bokhoven?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, reverting to good East Island manners out of fright.
“You’re Cornelius’ granddaughter, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“My mother was his secretary. He was a fine man—she took it hard when he died. Give your family my regards,” he said, handing her passport back.
“Thank you,” she said. The process speeded up considerably and they were shortly cleared to reboard the bus and head onward.
They slipped through the town of Denton, which wasn’t much better than Fort Lister or any of the other hamlets that passed for cities in this part of the Island. Vannie gave a running commentary on the founding families of Serelia, leaving out the business about the Amhersts being descendants of the kings of Beran. The countryside went first to wilderness, but it wasn’t long before wilderness gave out to the farms and estate of the Amhersts, which led them into the town that bore the family name.
They made a left turn in town and went to the All Saints Parish and School, which the Point Collinans found to be a pale shadow of its namesake on the Point. A decidedly primitive and rough place, they headed to the tennis courts, which the school had allowed the Point Collinan team to practice on. As they got off, they were greeted by the Rector, Decker Hardwick, and the Headmaster, Quincy Dalrymple. Vannie immediately attempted to pull the girls together for a proper Serelian type of presentation, but it failed; they were too independent for the job. The last one to be introduced was Alicia, who found out she was a distant relative of the Rector.
The best greeting came, however, when Vannie’s Aunt Susan came up. They hugged, and then Susan presented her younger children properly. All of them in their school uniforms, she lined them up in a row in front of Denise and the other girls that stuck around, which was most of them. Susan, like Vannie, had medium blonde hair, which contrasted with the red hair the children had. Denise wondered to herself whether they were hers, or if she was just a pass through for Amherst genes.
“This is Ronald. He is in Third Form. Next year he heads to Alemara Academy.” Ronald bowed and stepped back.
“And this is Edward, in First Form.” Edward did exactly as his brother had done.
“And finally, this is Darlene, who just started school this year.” Darlene had a hibiscus in her hands. She went straight up to Denise, bowed, and extended the flower to Denise.”
“Welcome, Miss President,” she said. Denise took the flower, totally surprised by this show of childlike formality. Vannie took it and stuck it in Denise’s ear.
“Thank you very much,” Denise replied, not really sure what else to say.
“We need to be practising,” Vannie reminded everyone. Susan led the children away and the team got out on the two courts to practice, mostly in doubles.
“That’s some kid, that Darlene,” Denise said, the flower still in her ear.
“That’s a real Amherst,” Vannie replied. “Always heads to who they think is the highest ranking person around. Look how little she is, and already starting in.”
“Yeah, and I hope it doesn’t get back to my father than I’m being addressed as ‘Miss President.’”
“You might as well be,” Vannie observed. Denise gave her friend a look that started out sour but turned into a sly grin. Then the girls arranged themselves on the courts and practiced.
After a while they noticed that a good crowd had gathered around them, both students and parents. The latter especially looked on them with interest.
“Why do I feel like we’re being looked over?” Denise asked Vannie during a short break.
“Because you are. They’re looking for wives for their kids. It’s like jumping into a piranha pond up here; so many people leave they try to trap anybody that comes here.”
“Looks like they’ve got Alicia on the hook,” Denise observed as their team mate talked with both her Hardwick relatives and others on the side. “We may just have an extra seat on the bus coming back.”
They resumed; Vannie ploughed one in to the net. Suddenly Darlene, having changed clothes, ran out onto the court, picked the ball up, and turned to her cousin with a puzzled look.
“Throw it here, sweetheart,” Vannie said. Darlene complied; it was a little short but ended up in Vannie’s hands. Pretty soon Darlene got the hang of it and was retrieving the ball consistently, not always knowing whom to throw it to but making life more amusing. What put the team in stitches was Darlene’s attempts to cover both nets at the same time, which usually ended up in disaster.
“This kid is a scream,” Denise said to Vannie. “A lot smarter than the morons we get out of primary school, too.” About that time Darlene walked over to Denise.
“Show me how to play,” she demanded.
“She doesn’t take no for an answer,” Vannie said. Denise found herself turned into tennis coach, but she complied and Darlene was soon doing some things in spite of the fact that the racquet was almost bigger than she was.
“We need to start practising for tomorrow,” Denise said, trying to end the lesson.
“You’re going to play my sister tomorrow,” Darlene declared. “She’ll win.”
Denise gave Vannie a puzzled look. “You said your cousin’s not first on the ladder.”
“Not as far as I know,” Vannie said. “I’ll probably play her.” She turned to Darlene. “Now go over to your mom,” and with that pointed over to Susan.
“But it’s not over!” Darlene protested.
“Yes, it is!” Denise replied. Darlene sulked over to Susan and they resumed their practice.
The practice eventually ended. They said their thanks to the school authorities, boarded their bus, and made the last, short leg of the journey to St. Anne’s. Once out of Amherst town the Old Beran Road followed the Amherst River, which varied from five to ten metres in width. The countryside acquired a little elevation, and there was a fair amount of small boat traffic in the river. About three kilometres before the road crossed the river on its way to West Serelia and the south, the bus turned left and away from the river on the road to St. Anne’s.
St. Anne’s School was situated on a large plot of land which it did not begin to fill up. In turn it was surrounded by an undeveloped royal estate which extended from Serelia Inlet to the eastern extremities of the Claudian Islands. The large amount of undeveloped land around the school gave it an isolated and monastic reputation, well deserved since the sisters of the Order of St. Anne’s still ruled the institution with an iron hand. The narrow road went straight through a thick pine forest where the trees reached well into the sky, giving an impression both spectacular and claustrophobic. The only thing that marked the passage from the royal estate to the school’s own property was the front gate, which had the school crest on both sides.
Not too far inside the gate was the “guest house,” a two-storey building in a clearing. They pulled up. Dorr went inside and found the house matron, who lived in a small adjacent home with her husband. The girls were shown to their rooms.
The Verecundans found the guest house an underwhelming business, living up to the bad reviews of the team elders who had been there before. With no air conditioning and little maintenance, it had obviously seen better days. After their initial inspection, she went outside to look around.
“I hate this place,” Denise said. “This school has a beach and everything, but they won’t let us go there until after we play. They must think we have cooties.”
“You did have VD,” Vannie reminded her.
“I’m no dyke. What difference does that make?”
“I don’t know.” Vannie sensed that she had hit a sore subject.
“Now they’ll serve us the ‘night before slop.’ Why can’t we go somewhere decent to eat? Last time, we pigged out at the Flying Dutchman after we played.”
“Ask Coach Dorr.” Denise followed Vannie’s suggestion, and went up to her coach, who was not inspired by the place either.
“Why can’t we go eat somewhere else?” Denise asked.
“Your father left specific instructions that we were to accept the hospitality they extended us,” Dorr told Denise. “Doing otherwise would be rude.”
“I was afraid of that,” Denise replied.
“Besides, we don’t want a repeat of what happened before Hallett.” Denise responded in sullen silence, which Dorr took as reluctant agreement.
The meal was served shortly in the small dining room adjacent to the main lobby. Denise picked at her food, and the rest of the team didn’t do much better, realising that Denise’s bad reviews were still factual.
Denise and Vannie had the corner room. As they looked out the window, the day’s light had been replaced by the light of the waxing gibbous moon, which gave them a decent view of the clearing around them.
“We’re stuck here,” Denise sadly noted. “They waited until they put that crap out for us to eat, then took off.”
“I think they went to The Conch,” Vannie noted. “It’s the best pub on this end of the Island.”
“What about the Flying Dutchman? Wasn’t that named after your grandfather?”
“It was,” Vannie confirmed. “I hate to go there. It brings back too many memories.”
“Maybe we’ll fix those someday.”
The Point Collina boys managed to get through the competition by winning 4-3. One of the Academy’s wins were at the expense of a player who had deep sixed his breakfast, after which two of them played post-seasickness doubles. Raymond was the beneficiary of that match, although his performance in singles wasn’t so outstanding. As the match ended, the guys got back on the bus and returned to port.
Jack took his leave from the rest of the team at the government dock. Making sure they were out of sight, he untied his boat and went to the gas dock where, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he refuelled his boat. He paid the dock and took off back into the harbour.
Rounding Driscoll Point, Jack hoisted the Serelian courtesy flag and spent the rest of the afternoon on his favourite boat cruise: the trip through the Crescan Sound from Alemara to Drago. The Crescan Sound had a fair number of rocks in it, but Jack knew the waters well enough to avoid them, and he went onward at full power. The weather held up nicely and he waved at the fishing vessels, coastal ferries, and the occasional Serelian naval vessel he encountered on the way.
With the sun setting behind him, Jack made his way to Drago and its government dock. The Serelian authorities took a reasonable look at his boat before stamping his passport and welcoming him to Serelia. Once through that, Jack met Rick Langley.
“How’s it going, man?” Jack asked.
“Going great,” Rick said.
“Let’s move the boat first,” Jack said. They did so, tying it up away from the customs slip.
“Where’s your old man and lady?” Jack asked.
“They’re up in Serelia with the bishop and his wife,” Rick informed him.
“So you’re free as a bird,” Jack assumed. Rick gave him a funny look.
“Not really,” he said. “I’m courting.”
“Courting what?” Jack asked.
“A girl—what do you think?”
“You mean—as in marriage.”
“That’s the way they do it up here. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but. . .”
“You don’t waste any time.”
“It’s the way things happen around here.”
“What’s her name?”
“Athena Ballman,” Rick replied. “I’m going over to her house tonight.”
Jack thought for a second. “You got some wheels?”
“I need them.”
“I’m going to go see Denise.”
“She won’t see you—and besides, you’ll get in trouble.”
“Nah, I won’t. I’ll be careful. Where are they?”
“It’s the sexton’s truck. He’s done for the day. It’s kind of old.”
“I don’t care. I gotta have it.”
Rick realised that resistance was futile. “All right,” he said, and they made the short walk over to the parish where the truck was waiting.
“Thanks, and get over there and score,” Jack admonished his friend as he got in. He found the keys, started up the truck, discovered that the sexton had thoughtfully put petrol in it, put it in gear, and, wheeling around, took off out of the parish close and northward to St. Anne’s.
Jack’s navigation skills were put to a greater test on the road than in the water. He had never made the drive on the eastern end of the Old Beran Road. It was getting dark and the road was, in classic East Island style, unlit. The tiny headlights on the truck were totally inadequate to light the way; he spent half his time worrying about overdriving his headlights and the other half actually doing so. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic, as Serelia had few private vehicles and the Serelians weren’t much to be out after dark except at the pub.
The pub turned out to be his first alert to the most important fork in the road. As the The Conch loomed along the right side, he suddenly realised that somebody had told him to fork left, which he did. This took him through West Serelia and onward to his next turn-off, which he almost missed, to St. Anne’ s itself.
He worried that there would be someone at the gate, but there wasn’t. Picking his way down the dark road, he saw the guest house and decided to pull up and ask for some directions. He saw three of the girls sitting on the front steps continuing the conversation they began when they pulled out of the school over eleven hours and two hundred kilometres ago. This told Jack that he had found the team. But he saw neither Denise nor Vannie, usually inseparable.
Now came the moment of truth. The girls obviously spotted him; there wasn’t anything or anyone else to see. But he didn’t want to get bogged down with them. So he killed the lights on the truck. The moonlight was all that was left to lighten the place. The girls on the steps, thinking that the place might be under attack of some kind, took to their heels and went inside.
Jack was still left with the problem of finding Denise. He knew her well enough to figure that she got a corner room. But which corner? He took a chance and pulled around the right side of the building and stopped next to the back right corner, where he saw a light in the window.
The girls that came off of the steps found Vannie in the hallway. Vannie immediately decided to head next door and see if the adults were back from the pub and available to rescue them. In the meanwhile the hallway was filled with commotion, which Denise could hear in her room. She started to get up and see what was going on when she heard a knocking on the jalousie window.
She went over to see who it was. She recognised Jack.
“It’s just me, Denise,” Jack said to a surprised team captain.
“Get out of here,” Denise scolded him.
“Open the window,” Jack said. Denise cranked the jalousies enough to hear him better.
“I don’t want to see you,” Denise said.
“Pete didn’t bother to come up here,” Jack observed. “You wanna go somewhere?”
“With you? No!”
“There’s nothing else to do around here.”
“I don’t care.”
“You do care. You know it feels good, Denise. For old times sake.”
Denise suddenly came in touch with her feelings in the middle of the nowhere that was northern Serelia.
“Meet me out front, quick,” Denise said. She threw her things together and her shoes on her feet. She made her way out the door, where she met Vannie and her panicked team-mates.
“What’s going on?” Denise asked.
“There’s a truck out there,” Vannie said breathlessly.
“So?” Denise asked.
“You know who it is?” Alicia asked.
“Of course,” Denise replied contemptuously. “Bye!” and with that she walked past the rest of the team to the waiting truck. Jack had not turned back on the lights, and the dome light didn’t work, so they couldn’t see who was in the driver’s seat. Jack turned the lights back on, threw the truck in gear and they sped away down the road.
“Who’s she going with?” one of the girls asked.
“I’m afraid there’s only one person who would pull a stunt like this,” Vannie said very deliberately, regaining her wits.
“Where are we going?” Denise asked Jack as they bounced down the road. “Coach Dorr and them are down at The Conch.”
“So we’ll go to the Flying Dutchman,” Jack replied.
“I can’t believe you came all the way up here to see me,” Denise said.
“It’s the only place I knew you’d say yes,” Jack said. “And I still miss you.” Denise felt a little heart melting at that last remark. “Pete didn’t bother to come up here—and he saw me take off for Drago, too.”
“Did you guys win?”
“Yeah, 4-3. I won my match. So did Pete.”
They turned right onto the main road, and in no time were in Amherst and parking near the Flying Dutchman. The second largest pub in Serelia, it had many little nooks and crannies for privacy, along with a few rooms in the back to make it an inn. Being a Friday night, the pub was full, although the Amhersts themselves had gone down to the Conch to drink with the King. One of the drinkers was the sexton for the parish and school; he recognised Denise from earlier in the day the minute she walked in the door. He announced this to the whole pub, and the convivial Serelians greeted the two warmly. Even the Rector joined in, especially when he found out that she was with Jack Arnold, whose grandfather he knew. The first round of their drinks were on the house.
And they weren’t the last drinks either. Denise lived up to her reputation of being a hard drinker, especially in a place where legalities didn’t matter, but she also lived up to her reputation of not holding her liquor as well as she could consume it. While they were doing that they threw darts and shot pool, but as the evening wore on Denise’s sobriety wore out.
As for Jack, he was laughing and carrying on as he usually did when out drinking, but he was drinking far more slowly than usual. He used every trick in the book to conceal that from Denise, including diverting her attention and pouring his beer into her glass when she wasn’t looking. With Denise’s giddy mood, that became progressively easier as the night wore on.
As the crowd started to thin out, Jack made his move. Having made arrangements with the innkeeper, he took Denise out and around back to the rooms. He escorted Denise back to the room, but left her there because there were still people milling around the inn. It wasn’t too long before they left and Jack returned to the room to find Denise struggling to strip for action. He obliged her by helping her to finish the job and then continued in his way with the action.