SECRETS HARBOURED

 

Saint-Quay-Portrieux, France, 1911

 

The village clung to the edge of the bay like a scallop clinging to a rock - dependent upon the onrushing tide yet also in fear of it. Just beyond the imposing harbour walls the streets and buildings began: plain fishermans cottages cheek by jowl with increasingly ornate hotels; open market stalls with sophisticated bistros. For some years now the outside world (read: Paris) had been discovering the rustic seaside charms of the Saint-Brieul coast, and Saint-Quay-Portrieux was the latest commune to feel the sudden influx of city wealth: it was appreciated and resented in equal measure.

There were many things to delight the arriving touriste, not the least of which - certainly for the gentlemen - was a little fish stall that operated on the quayside, not far from one of the hotels. The fish themselves were not the attraction, of course, but their seller: a young woman named Sabelle Lors Bourgier. A girl with frothing, sun-gold hair that tumbled down past her shoulders: an open, rounded face with full pink cheeks and piercing, wide blue eyes; a sharp, delicate little nose above a tight but full mouth; and a cute, almost babyish dimple in the centre of her chin. She had a sweet, disarming smile and an easy way with customers both resident and en vacances that tended to entice them back, be it to actually buy or simply to linger.

On this long, warm, summer afternoon she was in the process of packing up when a young man approached her. Unusually, he showed no particular interest in her good looks or the hint of embonpoint that showed from under her carefully-tied apron. In retrospect this was not so surprising, as he was her older brother, Pierre.

Good day, Junior? he inquired. Sabelle smiled.

Not bad - should keep you and Papa in tobacco for another week.

And these incomers, these Parisian parasites, they are behaving themselves?

Honestly, Pierre - why do you complain about them so? If it wasnt for these parasites thered be no hotels for you to supply with fish: our - your - whole livelihood depends upon them.

Perhaps. But they are not good people, Sabelle - they are not of the Commune. They reek of wealth, and the citys corruption: they are only here to exploit.

Sabelle rolled her eyes: once her brother got started on one of his rants, they had a tendency to go on. She decided to derail his train of thought.

I hope you havent forgotten about tomorrow.

His face coloured, and his shoulders slumped - quite clearly he had.

Oh, Pierre, Sabelle scolded, stamping her foot. You promised: youre going to take me and Deronique around the Bay. God, shes been looking forward to it for ages

His face clouded even more.

I dont know, Little One - it speaks of being a nice day. People will see

PIERRE! Sabelle snapped, almost shouting. For shame: Deronique is not a monster. No one will even notice her. And besides, you promised.

Oh, very well, he shrugged. But it will have to be when Im done mending the nets, sometime when there arent many people about - dejeuner, perhaps. Besides, how the hell do you intend to sell the idea to our parents?

She smiled warmly, leaning across to peck him on the cheek.

You leave them to me. And now, I am finished: will you be coming home for supper? We could walk together

No - I have to do some work on the boat. Young Gaston wants us to take her out on the Eventide, see what we can catch in the shallows. Ill be back later tonight - give my love to Maman and Papa.

And Deronique? she coaxed.

Yes, he sighed. Give my love to her as well

She walked home with easy, hip-swinging indolence; the admiring glances of familiar and stranger alike washing over her like so much spume. Oh, she knew she was pretty, and it flattered her to be the object of such attention; but even at twenty-one men had still not become an obsession for her. She assumed that at some point she would duly meet the right one, fall in love, have children - do all that her mother had, and more. But for now, her life still felt complete enough without him.

The little cottage was full of the familiar smells: Papas tobacco, Mamans cooking. Stepping inside, Sabelle was wrapped in the enfolding warmth and comfort of home. She kissed her parents in greeting: her father in his easy chair, mother in the kitchen.

Where is Deronique? she asked. Her mother cast a weary glance out the window, towards the cottages tiny back yard.

Where dyou think? Sat in the sun like shes some sort of flower, lost in her own head, as usual.

Sabelle grinned, stepped through into the stone-flagged space. And there, bathed in sunlight, face uptilted wondrously towards the pinkening sky, was perhaps the most precious thing in her life - her little sister, eighteen-year-old Deronique. It was always a slightly heart-stopping moment for Sabelle to glimpse her sister after an absence, no matter how brief: for as long as she could recall she had

considered Deronique the most beautiful thing in Saint-Quay-Portrieux, and possibly the most beautiful

thing on earth. While others - and this, embarrassingly, included her own family - considered the girl a freak, and actually quite hideous, to Sabelle she seemed only to grow more lovely by the year, or even by the day.

The term that people liked to use was Mongoloid. Deronique was, by common regard, an unfortunate freak of nature; visibly mutated with a vaguely oriental cast, and all that it implied: slow-witted, unable to fend for herself, destined to a life of constant care without prospects. Sabelle saw none of this, and never had: looking into Deroniques face she saw only beauty that far surpassed her own: a face round and open, high-browed and high-cheeked; wide epicanthic eyes of pale brown, under thin, profoundly arched brows; a pertly concave nose above a succulent little mouth whose plump and billowed lips put one in mind of strawberries and roses, and were a delight to kiss goodnight; a prominent but elegantly rounded chin. And framing it all, long, sweeping strands of hair like corn shot through with gilt - Sabelle could not resist ruffling it playfully.

And what have you been contemplating today, Littlest One? she murmured, settling into position at her sisters side.

The sky, and the gulls, came the equally muted reply, Deroniques lips barely moving. Have you noticed the way the seagulls turn on the wind, flicking over, letting themselves be hurled along like arrows?

Sabelle had not; she had been too busy with the fish. She gently took Deroniques hand.

How are those nails coming?

Together they inspected Deroniques fingernails, one of their current projects. They were growing fine and long, just beginning to curve downward.

Mm, not bad, Sabelle commented. Well give them a bit of a polish later. But for now, I have to

go and help Maman - see you at supper.

Back in the kitchen, Sabelle found Maman eyeing her suspiciously.

Darling, you werent talking to Deronique, were you?

Sabelle shrugged ruefully.

Im sorry, Maman - I was just telling her about my day

Well dont - it just agitates her, and of course she doesnt understand a word. I remember all the trouble when you had that secret language of yours

Mollified, Sabelle busied herself with pots and pans. The secret language was the same now as it was then, and had always been - French. Sabelle vividly remembered the day when Deronique uttered her first discernible word, in her presence. Still an infant herself, Sabelle had run, screaming with joy, to tell her parents that their supposedly mute youngest child could indeed talk. To her mortification, Sabelle had been branded a liar, and severely punished: Deronique could not and would not talk, ever - she was too mentally enfeebled. Ever after, conversations between the sisters were conducted sotto voce in breathy, barely audible tones: but the technique took a lot of perfecting, and Sabelle was beaten thoroughly every time she was overheard attempting dialogue with her sister.

Thus, Deronique learned to talk in secret. And after that, it seemed prudent to keep all her other lessons secret. The reading, the mathematics, the history, the sewing - as Sabelle absorbed all the teachings of the tiny village school, so she imparted them to her sibling on stealthy evenings in the yard (whence Deronique was routinely banished); by candlelight late at night; in the lambent wash of dawn;

at any and every stolen opportunity. Sabelles conclusion was that, far from being mute and moronic, Deronique was at least as bright as herself - probably brighter, if only she could have a better teacher.

But the wider world would not acknowledge it, just as it would not acknowledge Deroniques beauty -

with anybody else she was suitably silent, looked dutifully vacant and dull, as was expected.

Over supper - as so many times before - Deronique blankly contemplated her food while Sabelle contemplated her, and the adults droned on about them.

Such a shame Pierre couldnt join us, Maman commented.

Hes out on the boat, Sabelle replied automatically, trying not to snicker as Deronique rather skilfully dribbled food down her chin, With Gaston.

Ah, Gaston, Papa grunted approvingly. Now theres a fine young fellow, wouldnt you say?

Absolutely, my dear, Maman chimed back. I can think of none finer.

Really? Sabelle was nonplussed, looking between her parents. Hes always struck me as bit of a fool

Oh, no, Maman countered. You will not find better anywhere in the Commune.

Sabelle shot a puzzled look at Deronique, who shrugged imperceptibly before quite deliberately slopping some food off the edge of her plate, to much tut-tutting. It managed to get her parents off the subject of Gaston, although Sabelle was unsure why theyd been on it in the first place. She decided it was time to broach the subject she really wanted to discuss.

Speaking of Pierre, she said, with a rather forced casualness, My brother has agreed to accompany Deronique and myself on a little stroll around the bay tomorrow.

Both Maman and Papa fixed her with wholly predictable expressions of horror.

Oh, Sabelle, Maman cried, You cant be serious

Oh, Mother, Sabelle countered with a sigh, Deronique is a woman now - you cant keep her cooped up in here forever. She needs to see something of the world - to see the sea, at least. I have discussed this with Pierre, and he is all for it.

I find that hard to believe, Papa grunted.

Well, its true, Sabelle lied. Look, its just a morning walk - well stay away from the quayside, I promise. She tried to look imploring. Oh, please, Papa

Oh, very well, he shrugged. I suppose, if Pierre is with you, therell be no harm and as you say, Deronique is almost a woman, and should see something of the world, before its too late. But thered better not be any trouble

There wont, Sabelle grinned. I promise you, nothing will happen

He simply nodded, and refocused his attention on his food. Sabelle glanced at Deronique with the shadow of a smile: it had worked. On reflection, it had worked a little too easily

*

Later, safely ensconced in their attic room, the sisters shared their favourite moments of the day, as Sabelle brushed out Deroniques long, lovely hair; filed and polished her perfect nails; generally primped and pampered her before bed. The murmur of their voices was hardly discernible above the whisper of the brush and file.

What dyou suppose all that nonsense was about Gaston? Sabelle inquired. Deronique smiled.

I think maybe Maman and Papa are thinking in terms of a match.

Oh God, no, Sabelle protested. Hes younger than I am - little more than a boy. And hes an idiot

Hes a fisherman, thats what counts. You know neither Papa nor Pierre would countenance you marrying anything else.

Sabelle sighed heavily. I suppose not, but Gaston? Oh, I hope its just one of their little whims - there must be worthwhile men somewhere on this bay that can fish.

Not like Pierre can.

No, and not like Papa could, before his accident. Youre right, Deronique - youre always right. Oh, lets not talk about it anymore - its too depressing. Besides, you need to get to sleep, Littlest One - big day, tomorrow.

Were really going out with Pierre?

Yes, we really are - you heard Papa give us his blessing. And if it doesnt happen, Im going to beat our brother to a pulp, top fisherman or no.

They giggled, almost silently. They cuddled, kissed, and then retired to their cosy little bed, there to sleep the sleep of the pure in heart.

*

The next day was still summer: a clear blue sky only slightly scarred by twists of cirrus; the sand flickering along the beach, stirred by the same stiff but warm breeze that had yesterday goaded the

gulls. The morning was frenetic, holidaymakers and locals alike busy on this fine morning, but as the day lengthened and warmed, and the sun climbed oppressively high, they retreated to the cafes, the bars, the chalets and the hotels; busy with cold drinks and hot food. Thus there was hardly anyone to be seen as the sisters made their way down to the quay - Sabelle had nonetheless taken the precaution of fitting Deronique with a shading bonnet, lest her visage offend local sensibilities. It had been a long, long time since they had ventured abroad together: childhood, in fact. They had gone out, in secret, and it had all gone horribly wrong: other children, normal children, had surrounded them before they got more than a few yards, making of Deronique an object of curiosity and mockery. One word too many had sent Sabelle flying at them, all little fists and clenched teeth, in defence of her sisters honour. It all would have ended in tears and bloodshed, had not Pierre intervened (then as now, he was biggest kid on the block; and he had stealthily shadowed his wayward siblings). The recriminations from that day reverberated for over a decade: you might have expected it to bond them as a trio, but in truth Pierre effectively lost interest in them completely after that; and if Deronique thought back to that day, it would be Sabelles intervention she recalled, not his.

Pierre was waiting for them, down by the beach, as arranged; looking tired after his evening exploits. He greeted Sabelle curtly and, as usual, looked right through Deronique as if trying to will her into invisibility. They set off in a tight, silent little chevron, away from the harbour, hugging the rugged shore; but all too soon Deroniques excitement overwhelmed her, and she began to run on ahead, studying anything and everything with a ferocious intensity. Pierre and Sabelle hung back a little, looking for all the world like indulgent young parents with an incongruously oversized daughter.

Thank you for this, Sabelle said to her brother. It means so much to Deronique.

It means nothing to her at all, Sabelle, he scowled. Its all in your imagination. This whole thing is a waste of time, keeping me from my boat and you from running the stall.

The words were meant to sting, but Sabelle had armour built up over years, and she had heard the dull family liturgy so many times it barely registered. If you only knew, she thought to herself, and as she

did so she looked ahead to where Deronique stood, gazing out to sea. Following her eyes, Sabelle glimpsed the familiar shape of a yacht silhouetted on the horizon. Its low, lean outline indicated it was

not native to Saint-Quay-Portrieux: altogether too expensive.

Some bloody Parisian show-off, no doubt, Pierre muttered. Sabelle glanced back towards Deronique, but she was off again, bounding ahead, picking random things up and examining them minutely.

So why did you agree to come? Sabelle inquired, picking up the dangling thread of conversation. Pierre shrugged.

Because I knew you wouldnt let me alone until I did. And because I need to ask you a favour.

His tone was unexpectedly, unaccustomedly solicitous - it put her on immediate alert.

Oh? she said sharply And what might that be?

He glanced at her, both warily and wearily.

All right. I want you to agree to walk out with Gaston tomorrow.

Oh God, not you as well, Sabelle sighed. What is this, some sort of conspiracy? The parents were going on about this last evening

I dont know anything about that, Pierre said, a little too quickly. All I know is, hes been admiring you for some time, and he asked me to ask you - so I have.

Sabelle tried hard to give the impression she had considered before replying, but failed.

No, she said, flatly.

Merde, Pierre spat, kicking at a pebble. Why the hell not?

Because hes ugly, and an idiot, and I despise him, she replied baldly. Is that enough for you?

Pierre sulked in silence for a moment. When next he spoke, his voice was low and icy.

Suppose I force you?

Sabelle glowered at him suspiciously.

And how do you propose to do that?

He looked directly at her, eyes flinty and determined.

I tell our parents about all your little secrets - you and hers. I know youve tried to teach her to speak, even to read - you tell her everything, dont you? All the things our parents have strictly forbidden, youve done: can you imagine what theyd do if they found out? Theyd separate you forever, or damn close to it - no more sleeping in the same bed; Deronique sealed up in that attic room; and you possibly thrown out altogether. All Id have to do is tell

Colour drained from Sabelles face. For a few moments her lower jaw trembled so much she could

not speak.

Youd do that? she finally managed to whisper.

If I have to. Look, sis, I dont want to cause trouble, but you spend all your spare time with that freak: its unhealthy and unnatural. Shes not really your sister, or mine, shes just an unfortunate

accident - something that shouldnt have survived, but did. Our parents want you to find a man, and I know a man whos interested - I dont really care what happens after that. Surely its a small price to

pay for keeping your little confidences?

Sabelle had no idea how to react to this, and any of a number of responses would have been equally valid. She might have struck Pierre, spat at him, cursed him with every vile word she knew; she might have simply burst into tears; she might, after all, have agreed, just to avert any possibility of being separated from Deronique. But as it turned out, she was spared the trouble of responding in any way. For just then she became aware of something - something as ethereal as a shift in the wind, but just as profound. Something bade her glance towards Deronique: her sister had once again come to a stand, gazing very intently towards the still circling yacht. But she was not looking directly at it - her gaze was fixed on something between it and the shore.

There is a dog in the water, Sabelle blurted, suddenly and completely diverted from her rage. There was indeed an animal in the water, swimming alongside the yacht, steadily overhauling it. But twas surely no dog - not so far out, nor swimming so fast. Sabelles next, slightly more rational, thought was a seal, but no seal possessed a neck as long as this creature. As it swam, more and more of the neck appeared out of the glittering water, until it was as if there were a silhouetted, swimming giraffe nonchalantly passing them by - a notion so ridiculous Sabelle almost guffawed aloud. Having overtaken the boat, the beast began describing a steady half-circle, crossing its bow about a hundred yards ahead. Now Sabelle could see, just a little ways behind that stupendously long neck, a dark, rounded hump - not a serpentine coil, as she at first surmised, but a fixed protuberance; the only part of the animals body that could actually be observed. The thing moved with a frightful commotion in the water, leaving a long, streaming wake that made its size difficult to determine; but it was easily bigger than the yacht, perhaps as much as thirty feet in length. The three of them observed it, in stunned silence, for perhaps a minute before it slowly sank back into the water and disappeared. Afterwards, Sabelle found she was trembling.

What was that? she breathed.

I have no idea, Pierre answered flatly, equally slack-jawed. Ive never seen anything like it

Leaving her bother, their contretemps temporarily forgotten, Sabelle rushed forward to the spot where Deronique still stood. She placed a hand on her sisters shoulder, and as the girl turned, Sabelle was stunned to see that Deronique was crying. But these were not tears of sadness: they were tears of absolute, undiluted joy and wonderment. She radiated such pure, unadulterated magic that Sabelle could not help but take her in her arms, not caring what Pierre thought, or whoever might be aboard the yacht; not caring what anyone thought; just wanting to share this strange, beautiful moment with the one she loved the most.

*

They stopped at a sheltered, secluded spot to partake of the dejeuner Sabelle had provided, and afterwards returned to the harbour in silence, subdued and still a little shaken by what they had seen. People were emerging from their lunchtime venues: there was no excited talk of strange creatures in the water; nor did Deronique draw glances either of curiosity or disdain. Nothing, apparently, had changed: it was shaping into a perfectly normal afternoon. As they reached the quayside, and the sisters separated from their brother - they to return home and he to attend to his boat - Pierre caught Sabelles sleeve.

What I said earlier - can I have an answer?

Not yet, she snapped, peevishly, angered that he was still pursuing this line. Let me think about it

Dont think too long, Little One, and there was definite, understated menace in his voice. With a glare Sabelle took Deroniques arm, leading her briskly away towards home. And having deposited

her sister safely back in the yard - there to dream her silent dreams - Sabelle headed back to the quayside to reopen her stall and ply her trade for the remainder of the afternoon. And what seemed strangest of all to her was the fact that everything was completely normal, the place and its people just as it had always been: and yet somehow it was all irrevocably different. A monster had visited Saint-Quay-Portrieux, and even if only the three of them had seen it, twas a change far more significant than any number of incoming tourists. It meant something, Sabelle was sure - if only she could figure out what. She felt strangely unsettled, on tenterhooks - she longed to slip away home, to discuss the matter with Deronique; but she knew her duty, and so stayed put.

Then a man approached the stall. Quite obviously a tourist, for he made no attempt to blend in: a middle-aged gentleman with a carefully waxed moustache, expensively dressed in linen. He made a cursory examination of her wares (including, she fancied, her bosom); but Sabelle could tell from his manner that he had no interest in fish. At long last his eyes met hers: she smiled; he nodded, a tad gravely.

Mamselle, he said, quietly. An impressive selection of the seas bounty, you have here

Sabelle acted coy - a proven sales technique. Indeed, Monsieur. My family has fished here as far back as can be recalled. My father was the finest fisherman in Saint-Quay-Portrieux, until an accident forced him ashore. Now my brother has taken on the trade, with success, as you can see.

He eyed her in a thoughtful, disarmingly non-covetous manner.

Indeed. But I wonder if your family has ever encountered any of the stranger denizens of the deep?

Sabelles heart began to pound loudly in her breast, but she was wary of such a direct question.

I am not sure I follow, Sir.

He looked away from her, towards the sea, his expression deeply serious. Troubled, even.

I have this yacht, he said, almost apologetically. Earlier today I took her out around the Bay and I saw something. Something that does not belong to these waters; possibly does not belong to this world. And I cannot be sure, but I think some others might have seen it, too: perhaps young ladies similar to yourself.

Sabelle could feel the colour draining from her face. One part of her wanted to shout, yes! It was me! But there was something in this strange mans tone that bade her keep silent.

And why would you be telling me this, Monsieur? she inquired, keeping her voice as even as possible. He sighed.

Because whenever a woman lays eyes upon such a creature, there is always unpleasantness that follows. Things happen that cannot be controlled; that are unacceptable to the civilised world. Secrets come to the surface, like bubbles from the deep.

Very deliberately he reached into his jacket, extracting a scrap of paper which he handed across.

I will staying at the hotel opposite for a few days. Here is my name and my room number: should things become - shall we say - strange, feel free to contact me.

She accepted the slip, her hand shaking a little as she did so. Will all due solemnity he nodded again, then turned and walked away. She stared after him for several minutes, then slowly examined the paper. His name was Heuvel.

Who the fuck was that ponce? said a voice suddenly, making her start. She looked up into the last face on earth she wanted to see.

Gaston. She forced the syllables out like they were vomit. His little rat face smiled, giving a view of wrecked, abandoned teeth.

What was that he gave you, eh? Bit of payment up front? Selling yourself to the tourists now, are you?

Dont be absurd, she snapped, but nonetheless pressed the scrap of paper tight to her bosom.

Or maybe its a chit for that sister of yours, Gaston ploughed on. Theres many an out-of-towner would love to fuck a spaz - no backchat afterwards

At this point he cracked himself up. Remarkably enough, Gaston was considered a great wit among the fishing set, even though his witticisms, as far as Sabelle could tell, consisted entirely of brazen insults that he would later sort-of imply he didnt really mean. Ever since she had first known him - and it was a long time now - all Sabelle had ever wanted to do was find the biggest, heaviest haddock in the sea, and swipe him across the face with it. Sadly, her obvious fury only cracked him up all the more.

Your face, Sabelle, he sniggered. Oh, you bite every time, girl - you know I dont mean it. But you really ought to be careful with the strange men that hang around here.

Like the one Im talking to now, you mean?

The infuriating flipside to Gastons humour was that he never, ever registered a joke at his expense.

Nah, Im alright, he grinned. Im one of the good guys - Ill keep you safe from all the old pervs about the place. Anyway, what I was after stopping by for, was to ask if youd like to step out with me this evening, once youre done here and Im through on the boat. I could show you a really good

time

No, replied Sabelle flatly, and she was about to add not in this lifetime, before she recalled Pierres earlier threat. Not tonight, at least, she added quickly, Im busy. Maybe some other time?

Brief disappointment gave way to Gastons limitless self-assurance - he smiled his awful smile and winked at her.

Ill be sure to hold you to it, cherie. You and me, Sabelle - its destined to happen. You know it.

Sabelle shuddered as he walked away, then as quickly as possible closed up her little stall, even though it was a busy afternoon. She wanted to be home. She wanted to be back with Deronique.

*

The first ambition was easily fulfilled: the second was to be frustrated a little further. Arriving at the cottage, Sabelle was simultaneously pleased and perturbed to see Pierre loitering outside. Her brother rarely attended family meals these days, so his presence was guaranteed to put both Maman and Papa in a good mood. On the other hand, he was clearly waiting for her, which did not bode well.

I need to talk to you, he said, without preamble, as soon as she was within earshot.

This isnt about bloody Gaston again, is it? she sighed. Hes already approached me directly, thank you very much. I said no, but its not a permanent no - Ill walk out with him, if you insist.

Pierre pulled an offended face, as if she had hurt him with such trivialities.

What? No - its nothing to do with that. Its about earlier: that that thing we saw. Youre not to mention anything about it, in front of Papa, Maman, anybody - understand?

Sabelle didnt. Why not?

Because itll be the end of our livelihood if you do - Ill never be allowed to fish again. Shit, Ill probably never be allowed near the water again. You have to do this for me, do you see?

Sabelle certainly did not see. What she did see was that, all of a sudden, she had leverage over her all-powerful sibling.

On one condition, she hissed. Pierre scowled.

What?

You tell Gaston its over. I dont care how you do it, just make him understand that I have no interest in him, will never be with him, and itd be best all round if he just forgot I existed. OK?

Pierre scowled. He wont like that, Sabelle. Gastons a great bloke, but you dont want to cross him

It really was a most impressive monster that we saw, wasnt it? said Sabelle, with an evil smile. Pierre put up his hands.

All right, all right - Ill tell him. Just dont expect me to be responsible for the consequences, thats all.

And so there was supper, with all the family united. And there was boring chit-chat about fish, and a thoroughly uneventful walk around the bay. And every time Maman or Papa tried to broach the subject of Gaston, Pierre rather skilfully headed them off with some blunting remark, so that the entire

evening had the air of much talking about absolutely nothing in particular. And if Deronique was puzzled that the most significant event of the day received no mention, she gave no sign; merely

ploughed messily through her food as family custom and expectation dictated. It just made Sabelle love her all the more.

At long last the girls were united in their little upstairs haven, private and safe. While Sabelle brushed out her sisters hair she started to tell Deronique about Gaston, and the man at the stall, and Pierres mysterious intervention, but it all sounded too strange even to her own ears.

Never mind, she eventually sighed. Its just been a very peculiar day all around - Im not sure I understood any of it, and Im rather glad its over.

Thats funny, Deronique replied. I feel just the opposite - I think I understand everything, now

Sabelle paused in her brushing, expectantly, but Deronique said nothing more. Sabelle looked into her sisters face, reflected obliquely in the tiny mirror set upon their wall - Deronique was smiling an enigmatic, distant smile; and there was something curious in her eyes and her expression that Sabelle had never seen before; a kind of misty light that seemed almost angelic. It was both beautiful and vaguely unsettling, and just for a moment Sabelle shivered. Then it was gone.

As normal they undressed, slipping into plain muslin nightclothes and then beneath the coarse single sheet - it promised to be a muggy, oppressive slumber.

This has been a great day, said Deronique firmly. Thank you for everything.

It was nothing, my dearest, Sabelle smiled, leaning across to kiss her sister as she always did. Goodnight, sweet Deronique

And their lips touched, and there was a whisper of something that passed through the room, like the tremble of a leaf in the wind; like the sudden ethereal gust upon which a gull turns and wheels. Sabelle

started to draw her head back, and then stopped abruptly. For a fleeting, infinitesimal moment their eyes met, dark pools in pale lamplight. Then Deroniques lips rose to meet her sisters once more - a tender contact, fleeting yet audible; percussive as a bell-ring resonating through Sabelles heart.

The third kiss was soft and sustained, wetly passionate. As their mouths pulsed gently together like overlapping ripples, Deronique pushed herself upward, propelling both of them into a sitting position, tangled in each others arms; hair like soft golden rain splashing upon their wrists. Sabelle felt a waft of searing heat pass through her, perspiration gathering like dew upon her brow and beneath her arms; yet she shuddered as if chilled. They broke the kiss at last, stared into each others eyes, faces mere millimetres apart. There was no sound other than their breathing and the syncopated thumping of their hearts - no other sound in the world.

I Sabelle started to whisper, but Deronique stilled her voice with another kiss. Her tongue dabbed tentatively but stubbornly between Sabelles open lips, an invasion of sweet succulence. Sabelle had never been kissed in such a manner (though she knew full well the principles) - it made her dizzy. The heat was spreading like a prickly rash into her cheeks and throat and breast; she had to keep her hands tight on Deroniques shoulders to stop them shaking.

When this kiss foundered, and they again faced each other, Sabelle tried to say all the grown-up, rational, respectable things she was supposed to say. But Deronique, the silent one, had somehow robbed her of her own voice, and there were but three hurried, faint syllables she could summon.

I love you.

Deroniques elegant hands crept up to Sabelles shoulders, sat poised there a moment, then with great deliberate gentleness began to slip the straps of her nightdress free. Sabelle held herself quite rigid, other than the fierce contraction of her lungs, as the fabric fell slowly away, peeling from her sparkling

skin as the petal peels from a bud: the look upon Deroniques face as her sisters breasts were exposed was one of almost beatific rapture. Near stupefied, Sabelle found herself reciprocating, her trembling fingers nudging the straps of Deroniques chemise slowly outward until they slid free of their own

accord, a tumbling avalanche of pale fabric sliding down the perfect slope of her siblings buoyant breasts. How many times had Sabelle seen her sister naked, through childhood and adolescence and beyond? Hundreds? Thousands? But never like this: never before had she noticed the shore-like fringe where the Deroniques perpetual golden tan met the ivory perfection of her breasts; never noted the ripe swell of her nipples, perfect circles in warm terracotta, faintly shining like shields of bronze. Deronique raised both her hands and placed them upon Sabelles breasts; her fingertips lightly brushing the areolae. The touch was whisper faint, and yet it still made Sabelle start slightly, gasping with surprise as the heat within her surged into her nipples; filling them, making them achingly rigid; engorged with expectation. Again, helplessly, she mirrored her sisters actions, feeling Deroniques teats strain beneath her fingers; hearing her sisters faint keen of desire. By slow, slightly clumsy movements they pressed together, lifting their breasts against each other, kissing as they did so: turgid nipples rubbing and pressing; a shivery, hungry sensation.

Deroniques full, moist, sticky lips slid from Sabelles mouth, trailing over her dimpled chin, down into the soft hollow of her throat; descending further still onto the pliant, hanging vellum of her breast. As her sisters mouth closed about her aching nipple, gently suckling, Sabelle sighed and shivered, her mind a blank; she did not know what to do with her hands, what to say; she did not know this tigress caressing her with such tender fierceness; she did not know what she could or should permit, how far this strange, sweet seduction might go - she did not, in that moment, know anything.

And now Deronique was pushing her back, gentle as foam but firm as a wave, pressing down amid the pillows like an infant, or an invalid. Those lips, so soft yet so powerful, grazed the interlacing skin of her ribcage, just below her breast, lulling her into supine serenity. Then a sudden, momentous shift: Deronique shuffling down the bed, onto her knees; grasping Sabelles ankle, lifting her leg so that the hem of her nightdress rolled back like a retreating tide. A moment of purest panic, as Sabelle feared her secret shame, already dully throbbing, might be exposed - but for the time being she was safe.

Deronique merely cradled her sisters ankle, gently turning one high-arched, slightly squared foot towards her. Her fingertips brushed the yielding flesh of her sole, and Sabelle gasped again at a violent shiver of sensation. Deronique tilted her head a fraction, and kissed the tips of each toe in turn. In a

blur induced by her own trembling, Sabelle watched as one by one, her sister took her tight-curled toes into the warm, wet cavern of her mouth, lightly dabbing with her tongue. The sensation was ethereal, exquisite, irresistible: even as she sighed with satisfaction, Sabelle couldnt help wondering where her little sibling had hatched such ideas - surely not while staring at the gulls? All her life, Sabelle had considered her feet faintly ridiculous, even ugly - easily the least attractive part of her; yet here was Deronique caressing them, kissing them, adoring them. Beautiful and humbling, it melted Sabelles heart as thoroughly as her body was melting to these attentions.

Her tongue protruding faintly, wetly dabbing, Deronique kissed her way along the sinuous curve of Sabelles instep, across the slightly roughened circle of her heel, around the sculpted ligaments and protrusions of her ankle; onto the smooth peninsula of her calf. It was not until Deroniques lips crossed the capstone of her knee that Sabelle knew a hint of fear, along with a crackling, unholy excitement. Skilfully, almost imperceptibly, Deronique had turned Sabelles leg, twisting it up and outward, causing the hem of her nightdress to slip ever further back and away, the slow parting of her thighs exposing her; exposing everything. As Deroniques mouth pressed on to the silken flesh of her sisters inner thigh, she gave a glance that was haughty, haunted, hungry: and now Sabelle knew what was happening, no matter how she tried to deny it. Deronique was going to kiss her, there - the notion brought terror and arousal in an intoxicating melange.

Deronique, non, she mewled, in feeble protestation. Non, Deronique

But she made no move to resist, nor could she. Her body ached and hummed in anticipation; down below she was a wellspring bubbling, a fragrant orchid blossoming with dew. Her hands, the hands that should have been pushing Deronique away, were helplessly tangled in her own hair; her eyes were closing in surrender.