Sandy Cape, Queensland, Australia, 1890
Dedra returned to the schoolhouse - ashen, whey-faced, looking much older than her thirty-eight years. She was surprised to find Patty-Jo waiting at the door, her look grimly expectant. The younger woman bit her lip, not daring to ask, not wanting to add to Dedra’s burden; but desperate to know, nonetheless, as she followed Dedra inside.
“So,” she finally blurted, “What did the man say?”
Dedra gave a sigh that was like trying to shrug off the weight of the world.
“He… accepted my resignation, like I had a choice. It has been decided that I am to leave as soon as I can put my affairs in order - twenty years’ service dispensed with, flushed away. There will be no other recriminations, so long as I am willing to provide a report for the Educational Authority…”
“A report? And what the hell are you gonna tell them? Surely not the truth?”
“The truth?” Dedra laughed bitterly. “That is the last thing they’d understand, or want. No - they want a lie. A big, fat lie to satisfy their lurid curiosity; and if it makes me seem like an irresponsible madwoman, so much the better. Who knows, perhaps that’s exactly what I am?”
“How about a shark attack?” Patty-Jo offered. “A Great White, poised to carry Celeste off in its jaws?”
No, thought Dedra. Too extreme, too much melodrama: what the man from the Educational Authority wanted was something insane, yet somehow vaguely plausible - a lie so great that it would utterly obscure the dreadful, secret reality…
Not a shark. Not any type of known creature. But a monster of the sea? Yes, Patty-Jo was onto something there, and what’s more, hadn’t she once said…? Seized with sudden, desperate inspiration, Dedra crossed to her escritoire, drew pen and paper like they were weapons, to be turned upon herself.
‘To Whom it may concern’, she wrote, nib scratching like a mouse at skirting. ‘On the afternoon of June 8th, 1890, we had a visit from a monster turtle-fish…’
Miss Dedra Powell stood atop the steps of the little wooden schoolhouse, watching her charges disappear into the Sandy Bay morning, dispersing to the wind like the fine white grit that was an ever-present fact of life on this exposed northern tip of Fraser Island, itself split like a shard from Australia’s eastern coast. The sun shone, sparkling the sea with diamonds, reflecting with almost painful intensity from the whitewashed edifice of the lighthouse - the sole reason for Sandy Bay to exist, for there to be children, for there to be a school. Twenty years now it had stood watch, and all that time Dedra had ministered to the offspring of the keepers and their assistants, beginning as a reticent eighteen-year-old with qualifications, a sweet smile and very little else to offer. Like the tower, she had marked her time, done her duty - become as much part of the Cape as the sand and the scrub and the shoreline.
As the last pupil disappeared into the eddying dust driven by the ever-present sea breeze, Dedra stepped back inside. The days were cooling, no doubt about it - the southern winter now embarked. Ordinarily, the arrival of the winter holiday would be a time of trial for her - without her little rag-tag class to teach she felt bereft, without purpose, the loneliness of her situation weighing upon her until term time rolled around again; obliged to fill her time with studying the native fauna and flora, such as it was at this bleak outpost. But this break would be different, she thought to herself with a smile: this holiday would not be enforced idleness, it would be serious work; the most rewarding any teacher worthy of the name could hope for. This break would be special indeed…
Passing through the classroom into the cramped but cosy suite of minuscule rooms that comprised
her living quarters, Dedra filled a bowl of water and splashed the fresh frosting of sand from her face. From a slightly dulled mirror she looked back at herself - a handsome enough face, if a little severe: high-browed, high-cheeked, firm-jawed. Wide-set, smoky grey eyes matched the streaks of premature ash now showing in her formerly light brown, shoulder-length hair. Fringed with feathery lashes they glowed‘neath thin, arched, questioning brows; flanking a delicate, refined nose. And below that a slender, narrow, authoritative mouth; used to dispensing wisdom, encouragement and, where necessary, discipline. Beneath her rather dowdy dark dress, Dedra knew, lay a physique of some distinct voluptuousness - a source of puzzlement and shame to her, and something she did her best to conceal from the hungry eyes of adolescent boys, not always successfully.
A knock at the outer door disturbed her reveries. She hurried to dry herself, then opened up to the rough-hewn but distinguished figure of Mr Jenks Salford - lighthouse-keeper, 1st Assistant.
“G’day, Miss Powell,” he doffed his hat. “I just stopped by to make sure you were still alright with the arrangements for the holiday.”
“Of course, Mr Salford,” she blinked, “Why would I not be?”
“Well,” he shrugged, “I just thought you might have wanted a break yourself, rather than be cooped up with my Celeste for three weeks…”
As he spoke, Dedra’s eye caught a movement on the far side of what in Sandy Bay passed for the street - it was Bobbo, the resident black: a great, muscular figure going about one of his innumerable, mysterious errands. He slowed as he passed, his big eyes staring, his ear straining to pick up the conversation - Dedra flashed him a hostile glare and he hurried on.
“Mr Salford, let me assure you that there is nothing I would rather do than spend this time preparing Celeste for the Advanced Certificate: she is a girl of quite remarkable ability, and deserves the best opportunities that I can offer.”
“And, um,” he hesitated, “You really don’t mind Ella coming along, too? I mean, I know she’s a bit of a handful… we’d keep her at home, but I’m tied up at the Light, and my Flo has a hundred-and-one things to do around the house…”
Dedra smiled indulgently.“I am sure I can find things to occupy Ella - and she is bound to benefit, if only tangentially, from Celeste’s lessons. Really, it is no problem.”
He thanked her profusely, then walked away at a clip, in the direction of the looming lighthouse. Dedra was about to go back inside when she noticed a slight build-up of sand encroaching her steps - she tutted, fetched a broom, began to sweep a tad aggressively.
Actually, Ella was a problem. A brat: surly and facetious, and dense as a timber block to boot. Quite how Salford had managed to sire two such contrasting daughters within a year of each other was an enduring mystery. Indeed, there had been scurrilous rumours circulating that Ella, with her dark skin and wild ways, was not Salford’s at all - that someone else had serviced the divine Flo, at some point during the long, lonely nights when her hubby worked the Light. The name of Bobbo was even sometimes whispered, though surely he was a mere boy at the time. Dedra was not minded to give credence to such tattle, but it did rather explain the immense disparity between Ella and the younger Celeste.
Celeste - just thinking of her brought a smile to Dedra’s face. Not only exceptionally bright, a true scholar possessed of intense curiosity about anything and everything; not only sweetly tempered and perfectly behaved; but withal an exquisitely beautiful young lady. Quite sallow-skinned (a seeming impossibility on this wind- and sun-blasted Cape); long, straight, deepest umber hair framing an open oval face dominated by huge brown eyes - dark-lashed and heavy-browed - that might appear mournful were it not for the lambent glow of intelligence within. Celeste was graced with a dignified, slightly flared nose, a prominent but softly rounded chin, and a slender mouth of unexpected sensuality, especially about the lower lip. When she smiled - which, now Dedra thought upon it, was not often enough - delightful chevron creases formed at the corners of that mouth, as if to bracket, to accentuate
the moment. One so perfect was surely not meant for the confines of Sandy Cape - if properly handled, Dedra was convinced, Celeste had a future bright as her name, beyond Queensland, possibly beyond Australia itself…
A happy reverie, destined to be splintered by the onset of footsteps, an ingratiatingly cheery‘Hullo, Miss P’ - Dedra turned to see the one face she did not care to see just now, or indeed ever.
“Mrs Leeson,” she muttered. “What can I do for you?”
“I was Patty-Jo for ten years at school,” came the breezily bumptious response, “Can’t we drop this bloody ‘Mrs Leeson’ bit?”
Unwillingly, Dedra looked into the face of her visitor, a flood of bad memories and associations filling her mind. Patty-Jo Leeson, nee Patty-Jo Henderson: personal nemesis for fully half of her teaching career; thorn in her side from age five to fifteen. Even now, as an adult, she had that same impudent look about her, more brazen and obnoxious than Ella Salford could ever hope to be. A decade spent cajoling, remonstrating, scolding and punishing this blonde shrew; a desperate struggle to hammer some sense into the space behind those pale brown eyes; getting nothing but cheek and tantrums and occasional violence in return.
What was it about Patty-Jo that Dedra most resented? It couldn’t be the way she’d grown up, for she was always a tall, gangly thing with a muscular, athlete’s body; and adulthood had done little to change that. Now nineteen, she was fair enough, but it was a curiously masculine sort of fairness, a little unsettling to anyone with fixed notions of femininity. Like Celeste’s, an unexpectedly pale, firm-jawed, squarish face; high-cheeked but with a slightly flattened, distinctly mannish nose. A wide mouth, sinuous enough but not particularly feminine; great, heavy-browed eyes that stared out challengingly, almost intimidating. The curling frame of glittering, corn-gold hair softened the whole somewhat, as did a generous dusting of girlish freckles, but not completely.
No - what Dedra resented was that after all that rebellion, all the shrill assertions that she would flee
the island at the first opportunity; Patty-Jo had turned around and married, at the drop of a hat, Jeffrey Leeson, 3rd Assistant Keeper, who evidently could not believe his luck. Dedra felt personally slighted by the union - not that she had ever had designs on Leeson herself (he would have been no match for her intellect), but that the young strumpet should have thrown herself so flagrantly at a man several years her senior, and got away with it. At least they had - so far - failed to produce offspring, which was a source of muted gossip around the Bay; but this was the only bright spot in the ongoing irritation of Patty-Jo’s continued presence in the community - a constant reminder of the limits of Dedra’s authority and teaching prowess.
“I was wondering if you’d given any more thought to my proposal,” Patty-Jo continued, regarding her with that mischievous half-smile that Dedra had hated now for nigh on fifteen years.
“I told you before,” she huffed, “I have no need of an assistant - I have always managed without one, and I have only two pupils for this holiday class.”
“Yeah, but do you seriously think you’re going to manage Ella Salford, one-on-one? Once she gets bored - and you know she will - she is gonna eat you alive, just like I did.”
Dedra coloured, trying not to rise to the bait. It stuck in her craw, but Patty-Jo had a point: without the restraint of her peers, Ella might become even more disruptive; Dedra could not afford to have her work with Celeste hindered.
“Look, Miss P,” Patty-Jo continued, cajolingly, “Whatever this thing is you’ve got going with Celeste, Ella’s not gonna understand one whit of it, and probably neither am I. If I can keep her amused and quiet and out of your hair, it’s a win-win situation. And trust me, I can keep that girl amused - after all, I was just like her at that age…”
To her own disbelief Dedra actually found herself considering the idea - it had distinct merit. But she was still suspicious of the former tearaway.
“Why would you want to help me?” she asked, baldly.
“Because Jeff spends all his time up at the Light, and I’ve nothing t’do at the house,” Patty-Jo replied, with mock anguish. “I mean, c’mon, you know just how boring it is around here…”
Then why did you stay? Dedra thought, but did not say. She mulled hard, her every fibre longing to say no. But…
“All right,” she finally sighed, wearily. “We’ll see how it goes. Be here tomorrow, eight sharp - but keep in mind, this is just a trial.”
“Thanks Miss P,” Patty-Jo beamed. “You won’t regret this…”
But as she walked jauntily away, swinging her hips in a most unladylike manner, Dedra returned to her sweeping and thought that regretting it was probably the most likely outcome.
The first day had a slightly surreal atmosphere, the schoolroom rendered outsize by lack of its children, churchlike with unexpected echoes. There was a strange intimacy about the balance of teachers to pupils, a radical power shift that would take some time to accommodate. Feeling slightly intimidated by the presence of Patty-Jo at her side, Dedra regarded her class of two. Celeste, as ever, sat ramrod straight, eyes bright as buttons, eager to learn, to be stretched and challenged. Ella slouched in her seat, looking impudent as usual, though evidently intrigued by the unexpected inclusion of Mrs Leeson. It was becoming hard to think of Ella as a‘girl’ - she had, in the past year or so, filled out in face both and figure, becoming downright buxom in a smock not intended to show shapeliness. She was, Dedra had to concede, at least the equal of her younger sister in beauty, were one prepared to overlook the tan, near-native tint of her skin. A soft oval face, quite delicate, dominated by wide-set, deep brown eyes of a slanted, almost Asiatic cast. A pert nose and a thin but shapely, perfectly feminine mouth; the whole framed by chestnut hair that matched her sister’s in length and glossiness. A fierce sort of prettiness - one might deem it noble if one did not know the malignant spirit that lay behind.
“Now, girls,” Dedra announced, adopting an imperiousness she didn’t really feel, “I appreciate that it is a little strange for you to be here when the rest of the school is on holiday, but I am hoping we can use these few weeks to make some real headway. Celeste, you and I will be undertaking the Advanced Certificate syllabus, while Ella, you will be working with Mrs Leeson on your own programme…”
“Why can’t I learn what she’s learning?” Ella interrupted, with a sour sidelong glance at her sibling.
“Because it’s over your head, sweetie,” Patty-Jo shot back, with a sardonic smile. “You an’ me, we’ve got the remedial course - the one for thickos…”
Dedra was dumbfounded, while Celeste shrivelled in her seat, blushing vividly. Ella’s eyes blazed as she sat up.
“Who are you calling a thicko?”
A bristling, tense moment - Dedra had expected things to unravel, but not quite this fast. But Patty-Jo coolly stared the girl down.
“You, sweetie: but it’s OK, ’cause I’m a thicko too - just ask Miss P. Never did any study, mucked about in class, failed everything, and look where it got me - stuck in Sandy Cape forever and hitched to an old fart of a lighthouse keeper. So, unless you wanna end up like me, you’d better get stuck into this pronto an’ work your pretty little arse off between now and July…”
Ella looked by turns bewildered, enraged and thunderstruck - and then, wonder of wonders, her face crumbled and she started to laugh. Patty-Jo chuckled also, and then it became infectious: Dedra, who had never known such profanity in her classroom, chortled helplessly; even the angelic Celeste snickered discreetly behind her hand. The tension - every bit of it - dispersed on a gale of giggles, abruptly uniting this awkward foursome.
“All right, everyone,” Dedra finally ejaculated, clapping her hands, “Let’s get to work…”
And for a few days, it did work, like a dream. Much as Dedra hated to admit it, Patty-Jo was a natural tutor, not only keeping Ella entertained, but also actually bringing her along. Her methods were unorthodox, to be sure - she turned spelling exercises into bawdy limericks and peppered her lessons with salacious gossip and nonsense - but it was working and, more importantly, it freed Dedra for the crucial task of preparing Celeste to sit her Certificate. Dedra was aware she was pushing the youngster hard - this material was beyond anything taught in Sandy Cape before. And while she had no doubt about Celeste’s ability to cope and to absorb, she was increasingly doubtful about her own ability to adequately convey. This doubt made her teaching style more heavy-handed than usual, and one incident in particular made her realise that she needed to find the lightness of touch that seemed to come innately to Patty-Jo.
She and Celeste were wrestling some abstruse philosophical proposition when it became apparent to her that the girl’s attention had wandered.
“Celeste!” she snapped, with undue annoyance. “Are you even listening to me?”
Celeste started, glanced at her, then looked down shamefacedly.
“No, Miss Powell,” she mumbled. “I’m afraid I was… distracted.”
“Distracted?” Dedra hissed. “And what, pray tell, is proving more engaging than this question?”
Celeste glanced over to the corner of the room, where Ella and Patty-Jo were engaged in animated discussion. Dedra felt a jolt of pure, unreasoning anger.
“You two!” she bawled. Their heads snapped up, and twin venomous glares momentarily put in her fear of an alliance between her old and current nemeses. She added quickly, reasonably, “Would you mind telling me what it is you are currently studying?”
“The Moka-Moka, Miss P,” Ella replied, with just a hint of insolence.
“It’s an old legend among the blacks,” Patty-Jo explained laconically. “I’m a bit surprised you’ve never heard of it, Miss P - I got it from our man Bobbo. The Moka-Moka is a sea-monster - half-fish, half-turtle: from time-to-time it comes ashore to attack the blacks in their camps, and they have to drive it off with fire…”
“I see. And do you feel it appropriate to fill young ladies’ heads with tales of monsters?”
Patty-Jo seemed a bit hurt by the question.“Fair go, Miss P - didn’t you see a sea-monster, back when I was a little ‘un?”
Ella’s jaw fell open, and her eyes bulged, while there was an audible gasp in Dedra’s immediate vicinity, from Celeste - it made her feel suddenly rather naked.
“That was a long time ago,” she murmured. “Besides, it wasn’t really a monster…”
“Oh tell us, Miss Powell,” Celeste blurted, her haunting eyes wide and pleading. “Do tell us, please!”
Dedra shrugged wearily, her lesson seemingly gone hopelessly awry.
“Oh, very well. Yes, nearly twenty years ago, during one of the holidays, I was walking along the shore and indeed saw what appeared to be a huge ray flying up out of the water. I reported my sighting to the Brisbane Naturalist’s Society, and several months later they confirmed I had seen what is now called a Giant Manta - the first to be observed on this coast.”
“But that’s amazing, Miss,” said Celeste, and there was something in her eyes close to adoration. “Why did you never tell me this before?”
Dedra shrugged again.“It did not seem particularly germane.”
“But that’s not all,” Patty-Jo chimed in. “Tell ‘em about that thing that’s named after you, Miss P.”
“Oh, that,” Dedra was openly blushing now. “Well, as you probably know, I do like to study the fauna and flora of this region. One time, I did stumble across a bivalve - a shell - with which I was unfamiliar, and could not trace in any book. I sent the specimen to Brisbane, and later learned it had been named Trigonia powelli in my honour, as I had been first to discover it.”
The look in Celeste’s eyes was now one of humbling, almost terrifying intensity - it was nigh religious.
“Miss Powell,” she whispered, “I think you’re wonderful…”
The rest of that day went perfectly.
It would have been around this time that Patty-Jo began lingering after class, ostensibly to help clear up, though there was precious little of that required. Out of courtesy, Dedra brewed her a cup of tea, and from that point on it became something of a ritual. Once the sisters had been dismissed, and set off for home, the kettle would be filled and the pair of them would settle to a chat. Much to her surprise, Dedra found herself quite relishing Patty-Jo’s company, while Patty-Jo herself showed precious little inclination to go home to her husband without a fair amount of prompting. There was, Dedra thought, something just a little odd about that, but as she was naturally discreet, and in any case rather benefiting from the situation, she did not raise the issue.
Then came the day Patty-Jo actually did leave at the end of class, only to return in the twilight, laden with anonymous bottles containing something amber and slightly glittering.
“Is that what I think it is?” Dedra inquired suspiciously.
“If you’re thinkin’ it’s hooch,” came the breezy reply, “You’d be half-right. This is somethin’ the assistant keepers brew amongst themselves - all I can tell you is, it tastes a little like cough linctus an’ it’s got a kick like a mule. Well, I had to pay you back for all that tea. Got any glasses?”
Patty-Jo did not wait for a response but, like always, marched into Dedra’s living area and began rummaging in her cupboards. Dedra felt a now-traditional twinge of annoyance at her private space being so brazenly encroached.
“You are aware,” she said tersely, “that I have taken the Temperance Pledge?”
“Yeah?” Patty-Jo grinned. “Me too, but I was only thirteen years old - what’s your excuse?”
Finding no glasses, she settled for filling two old, half-forgotten mugs. Dedra shook her head, more at herself than at her visitor: these days, somehow, Patty-Jo was always managing to talk her round, to win her over. Ever the gracious host, Dedra offered her guest the only armchair she had, opting, as had become habit, for sitting on her demure little bed. She sipped cautiously at the proffered concoction - it had been some years since her lips touched alcohol, and she was unsure how it was supposed to taste. The substance seemed inordinately sweet, and it had a distinct glow as it eased down her throat, but it was not unpleasant and the effects were disappointingly lacking in drama: after a few swallows it merely rested warmly in the pit of her stomach, more soothing than demonic.
“Can I ask you something?” Patty-Jo said, efficiently draining and then refilling her mug. Dedra, nodded, and in a sudden burst of bonhomie allowed her own drink to be topped up.
“Howcum you never got married?”
Dedra shrugged, as if the question was irrelevant.“There has never been anyone I cared to get married to…”
“But why not?” Patty-Jo’s manner was unaccustomedly intense. “I mean, I know there’s never been that many men around here, but surely one or two must’ve appealed…”
Dedra smiled, shook her head. She was starting to feel positively blissful, chatting merrily with this friend who had so long been her enemy.
“What d’you think of Bobbo?” Patty-Jo asked suddenly, taking her aback.
“Bobbo? You mean, the black?”
“Who else?” Patty-Jo rolled her eyes. “Don’t you think he’s a fine figure of a man?”
“I’m sure I do not,” Dedra harrumphed. The very idea seemed distasteful in the extreme.
“I think he’s gorgeous,” came the slightly dreamy response. “Those muscles, that skin - Jeez, I bet he‘s hung like a stallion…”
“May I remind you that you are a married woman,” Dedra muttered, unable to stop herself reverting to schoolmarm mode. “It is unseemly for you to talk in such a manner.”
Patty-Jo, unfazed, merely shrugged and poured some more drink.“So, what sort of men do you like?”
“Really, I have no opinion on the matter,” Dedra bridled. She was anxious to get off this topic, but her thought processes seemed a little muddled, and she could see no clear way.
“You’re not telling me no one’s ever taken your fancy? Okay, so maybe not the men - you’ve taught a fair few boys in your time, did none of them ever catch your eye?”
“I shall not dignify that question with a response,” Dedra answered airily, though with not quite the wounded dignity she’d intended. Patty-Jo regarded her with an insolently judgemental gaze.
“All right - no men, no boys. So how about the girls?”
For a moment Dedra’s mind refused to acknowledge the question had actually been posed, it was such an affront to decency.
“Before, you were just being ridiculous,” she said coldly. “Now you’re being obscene.”
“Aw, c’mon Miss P,” Patty-Jo countered, utterly unruffled, “There must be somethin’ that floats your boat…”
Dedra glowered, feeling humiliated not so much by this line of questioning, but by her own naivety
in ever thinking Patty-Jo might have changed. In truth, she was as immature, as impertinent as ever.
“If you were still my pupil,” she snapped, “I would set you across my knee and spank you.”
Patty-Jo regarded her with infinite coolness, sipping her drink.
“What makes you think I wouldn’t enjoy that? I always used to…”
“Good God!” Dedra squealed, flinging down her empty mug in frustration. “Why? Why have you always been like this? Ever since you were six years old - eating away at my authority, undermining the whole class, belittling me: what was it all for?”
“To get you to notice me,” Patty-Jo shrugged, twisting a strand of golden hair in her stubby, masculine fingers. “Knew right from the start I’d never dazzle you with my schoolwork - too dense for that. Had t’make an impression some other way…”
The answer made no sense to Dedra, but even in her muzzied state she sensed some kind of awful, impending breakthrough. She tried a different tack.
“All along, you kept loudly insisting you’d leave Sandy Cape, first chance you had. But when it came to it, you stayed here - became a housewife, for God’s sake. I don’t understand how you could do that…”
Another shrug.“All I really wanted was here. But I couldn’t have it, so I settled for what I could get. Trouble is, it’s not enough; never will be.”
Dedra’s head was reeling: everything seemed to be going in circles. It was like trying to solve a puzzle, knowing full well you were missing a vital piece.
“I told my mum an’ dad about it, God rest their souls,” Patty-Jo continued. Her tone was indolent, but she was looking steadfastly to one side, avoiding Dedra’s eyes. “They thought it was funny - told me it was just a crush, I’d get over it. But I knew, even then, it wasn’t going to go away: I knew that I had never seen anyone, anything as beautiful as you. I knew my feelings weren’t going to change, not
ten years on, or thirteen years on; never.”
Dedra could feel the colour drain from her face, her pulse a leaden throb behind her eyes. She suddenly craved another drink, but she was afraid to pick up her mug, afraid to even move.
“Are - are you saying…?”
Patty-Jo looked at her then, smiling almost shyly. She nodded.
“Love you, Miss P: always have, always will.”
It’s a joke, thought Dedra. Of course it’s a joke - what else could it be? And that was the final straw, the ultimate insult: fuelled by unrefined fury she vaulted off the bed, striding forward and slapping Patty-Jo hard across the face, the second mug flying in a splatter of gilded droplets.
“How dare you!” she shrieked, tears pricking her eyes. “How dare you insult me like this? You tormented me for ten years, and then you wouldn’t leave, and now you’re here, in my home, and you won’t let me be…”
She might have struck Patty-Jo again, but at that point the girl jumped up, suddenly looming in her tallness. She grabbed Dedra’s hand, holding it fast, her superior strength menacingly obvious. She pulled at Dedra, a painful yank eliciting a gasp and propelling her forward. Before Dedra could quite adjust to what was happening, Patty-Jo’s muscular arms were around her, Patty-Jo’s decidedly feminine lips pressed hard against her own. Panic emptied her mind: she could only mewl, unable to breathe. She struggled frantically, somehow broke free, pulling back a step. She was panting, her heart palpitating, stray strands of hair suddenly fallen across her eyes: she could only stare at Patty-Jo, at the blaze of her look, the alien intensity of her expression.
“I…” she stammered, “I don’t…”
And then Patty-Jo was on her again, coming like the tide - strong hands upon her shoulders, soft yet firm lips upon her mouth; sweet breath stealing her own away. Again her thoughts fled, trying to escape this awful reality - the touch of mouths, the press of bodies. Yet this time she did not struggle, did not fight: something had robbed her of all strength, something she dare not name; dare not even consider. And when the kiss foundered, all that she could do was stand there: a helpless, choking mass, tearful and trembling. With a mighty effort, she lifted her hands, cupping them around Patty-Jo’s face.
“Please,” she whispered, eyes wide and pleading, “Tell me this is not a trick…”
“No trick,” Patty-Jo’s look was almost painful in its earnestness. “I want you, Miss - I’ve always wanted you…”
This time, the kiss was Dedra’s, soft as the first drop of rain, shyly inquiring. Dry lips touching, adhering, sealing; become suddenly warm, suddenly moist, friction yielding to sweet, indefinable smoothness. The soft lap of mouths opening, parting, reconnecting; the touch of tongues: massive, quivering, retiring. Heat was filling Dedra, surging into her cheeks, her throat; her private, shameful places. The trembling consumed her, within and without; her heart was rolling thunder. Yet in the eye of her personal storm she was almost calm.
“We should not do this,” she breathed. “It is forbidden, it is wrong…”
In response Patty-Jo kissed her again, tongue sliding into her open mouth, dizzying in its engorged succulence: filling and invading the pliant cove of her; the slow seeping syrup of saliva dripping in her throat, making her swallow, sealing the bond. Their parting was like surfacing from underwater.
“Please stop,” said Dedra, although her heart no longer seemed to be in it.
“There’s no one else here,” Patty-Jo replied gently, kindly. “Only us. Nobody will ever know…”
“You have a husband…” What was intended as an accusatory rebuke came out more as a gentle reminder.
“He’s on duty through ‘til the middle of tomorrow morning,” Patty-Jo grinned. “Forget him: forget all of them. Tonight, it’s just you an’ me…”
Her lips brushed Dedra’s temple, her cheek: the velvety skin of her neck. Soft kisses, almost dainty, but each one huge and percussive, like waves crashing or the sounding of a great bell; smashing her decorum, her resistance, her sense of self. Patty-Jo’s fingers followed in her mouth’s wake, stroking the side of Dedra’s face, caressing her chin, her throat, the notch of her shoulder. ‘Twas not until they began to pick at the bows and fastenings of her blouse that panic truly seized her.
“Oh, no,” she gasped. “Oh God, no, no, no…”
In response Patty-Jo kissed her again, fierce upon the lips, though whether to reassure her or smother her protests Dedra would never divine. Those hands, that once had pilfered supplies from her desk; that had formed the wads of chewed-up paper to be hurled at all and sundry; that had scrawled obscene messages across her blackboard: those hands were undressing her, bow by bow and button by button; and she was paralysed, palpitating, powerless to resist - or so she would ever tell herself. Slowly, almost ceremonially, fabric loosed about her shoulders, her arms, parting and falling as gently as old blossom in the breeze. She kept her eyes fixed upon Patty-Jo, tying not to breathe although she felt she was drowning: observing the strange melange of expectation, hope and impudence in the young woman’s expression. Then at last her upper torso was exposed, heat and colour surging into her as a look of almost religious adoration passed across that once-despised face.
“Oh my God,” Patty-Jo breathed, “They are so beautiful… I always knew they would be.”
Momentarily nonplussed, Dedra, followed her gaze, looking down upon her own familiar breasts, voluptuous and hanging, slightly elongated; the great bronzed protrusions of her nipples like ripened
fruit on the vine: could this truly be classed as beauty?
“Can I touch them?”
The diffidence in Patty-Jo’s voice was shocking, but not so much as the light in her eyes - dreamy and yearning, almost like Celeste. Dedra shivered, bit her lip, nodded a silent assent. Those heavy
fingers reached across, but their touch was feather light, as though she were glass, precious and fragile. But even this was enough to send all blood surging into her nipples, or so it seemed: even this was enough to make the breath catch in her throat, to make her gasp, to make her belly flutter. Gentle hands, slightly roughened from housework, cupped her breasts, slightly kneading the soft, heavy flesh; thumb tips stroked her areolae, her teats, goading them to hypersensitivity - she let her head roll, her eyelids flutter. Moisture pricked her skin, beading her forehead, her underarms; pooling and gathering in the shameful secret valley beneath her skirt.
And now her breasts were lifted a fraction, Patty-Jo’s head descending in synchronicity, and Dedra moaned, low and animal, as a nipple was drawn between the young woman’s lips, her tongue lapping warm and wet and lulling as the surf, Involuntarily Dedra arched her back, every fibre strained and tense, unable to stop the stream of soft cries that bubbled in her throat; unable to bear the sensation; unable to bear the thought of it ending.
End it did, Patty-Jo sweeping upwards, drawing her arms tight around Dedra, kissing her with a ferocity that stole the last of her breath, of her senses.
“Let me make love to you,” the whisper came, hot and urgent, passion distilled.
“Do you… know what to do?” was all Dedra could think to say.
A slight smile, subtle and wicked; a kiss upon her forehead that was almost patronising.
“Been dreamin’ about it for thirteen years, Miss - I should bloody hope I know what to do…”