Bethulia Extract

Part 1. The Moon
Oxford, October 11th 2000

Three girls were huddled in a bay window, peering up into the night sky.
The fair-haired one stretched out to trace the moon’s outline on the window pane. “The full moon’s so beautiful.”
The dark-haired one peered up, calculating. “It’s not actually full for another two days, Alison. It’s still gibbous.”
“Gibbous! Trust Danny.” The third one laughed. “Lovely word. Really creepy, isn’t it?”
“The moon’s never creepy,” said Alison. “It’s like it’s watching over us.”
“Like a mother?”
“Yes,” said Alison quietly. The other two exchanged shame-faced glances.
Danny, the dark one, picked up her book. “We’re supposed to be doing homework. Haven’t you got any, Jude?”
“German. Done it. Easy. What about you, Ali?”
Alison hugged her knees. “I’m excused because of the piano exam.”
“Which you passed, of course.”
“He was a nice examiner.”
“So in love with you, I bet.”
“He was an old man. But very kind.”
“Not Prince Charming then?”
“No, but I liked him.”
“What would your Prince Charming be like?”
Alison gave it serious thought. “Kind.”
“Kind? Not handsome?”
“Well yes, that too. And loving.”
“Smart,” said Danny. “And not into football.”
“Funny,” said Jude. “Sexy.”
Alison laughed and drew a smiley face on the moon. “Yes, all right. But he must be kind.”
Jude sprang up from the window seat and whirled round the room. “What if we found one, you know, a really cool man who was kind and handsome and smart and funny and sexy and hated football. Which one of us would get him?”
“We could draw straws,” suggested Danny.
“Or share him,” said Alison.
“And all live together in a huge house!”
“And have lots of babies.”
“I want three,” said Danny.
“I want six,” said Alison.
“Do I have to?” asked Jude.
“Yes!” they roared.
“One then.”
“I’d love that,” said Alison. “Wouldn’t you? If we three could stay together always.”
“For ever and ever, amen,” said Jude.


Part 2. The Lovers

1. Jude. Heathrow, 20th June 2018

We were coming in over Kew. I could see it clearly, sunlight flashing on the panes of the temperate house. Rampant greenery and damp earth – I could almost smell it, feel the humid heat. As the plane took another plunge, I plunged too, into a memory of a greenhouse in a suburban Oxford garden and three little girls…
Me and Danny, our hands dark with potting compost, nudging each other as Dr Rackman approaches, guiding a fair-haired girl with a pale face, tear streaks on her cheeks.
“Danny, Judith… girls, you were supposed to be putting that compost into the pots, not out of them. Never mind. This is Alison and I want you to be very nice to her.” Mrs Doctor looks over the top of her glasses at us, reminding us what she has already told us, that Alison Greenold’s mum has died and she’s very unhappy. We grip our dirty hands together, agreeing.
“Alison, darling, this is my daughter Danielle – Danny – and Judith Carr, who comes to stay with us when her parents are abroad. Your dad wants you to stay with us too for a while, while he sorts things out, so I hope these two rapscallions will look after you and you’ll all be friends. Do you think you will?”
The pale girl gives a snivelling nod. Danny drops my hand and rushes forward to throw her arms around Alison. She is crying, thinking of dead mums, and I cry too as I join them, my arms weaving with theirs until we are one knot of little girl…

Hands were pressing against my seat. The passenger behind me, who has been silent the entire flight, was breathing heavily now, shuddering with nerves. The ground was coming up to meet us. It’s odd that as a plane slows down to land, the sensation of speed increases. We were going to crash. Bump. We were going to crash. Bump, we were hurtling along the tarmac, towards oblivion and there was a bit of me that usually enjoyed the thrill, but not today. All I felt was a sense of inescapable doom.
It grew as the plane slowed and turned to taxi to its dock. I’d travelled in haste, but now I wanted to delay the end. Unlike the other passengers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats until…” Why do they bother saying it? The moment my fellow travellers sensed the plane was stationary, they were unbuckling their belts and trampling over each other to haul down cabin luggage.
I sat motionless until the order of disembarkation had been sorted and the hoards had finally shuffled to the doors. I gathered up my one small case and walked out after them. Once I’d passed the stewardess’s corporate smile I slowed my saunter to a foot-dragging crawl. Why not just stop? Go no further, hear no news. But I was Jude. I didn’t do prevarication. I faced things head-on.
I switched my phone back on and texts promptly piled up. There was only one that mattered, the text I had been anticipating. The text I didn’t want. The chill in my stomach gnawed its way into my heart. I pocketed my phone and marched towards Arrivals.
They were there, two women stranded on their own private island of quicksand in a milling ocean of confusion. I saw them before they spotted me and one look confirmed the brief blunt text. Madeleine – Dr Rackman – face lined by grief, and my Danny, drawn, gaunt, desolate, arms wrapped round herself until she saw me. Her mouth opened in a silent tormented greeting, and she ran towards me, embracing me in a wave of desperation. I embraced her back. One knot of woman. Just the two of us.
“Jude, thank God you came.” Her broken voice whispered in my ear.
“I’ve been in the air for twelve hours. Only just got your text. Please tell me it’s not true.”
She gasped a strangled scream.
I pushed her back, holding her so that I could see her eyes. “Say it.”
“Yes! It’s true.” Her face seemed to disintegrate before me. “I shouldn’t have told her. But I did, I told her and she’s dead, Jude. Alison is dead.”

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