My publisher has closed down. Until I self-publish these novellas you can email me:
virginniadeparte[@]gmail.com (without the brackets )
and I will send you this novella - FREE
The wind from the south blew up Port Phillip Bay and raced up Flinders Street, blowing Melbourne’s litter with it. Belinda squinted against the whirling dust, cursing this city with its ‘four seasons in one day’ weather.
Bored with her own company and browsing the shops, she regretted taking the day off work. She’d head home instead. Her mother would be happy to see her back earlier than expected, and the short trip to North Brighton would give her time to think about her next landscaping project. Maybe she’d have been better off browsing the garden centre at Hampton than wasting a day in the city. It didn’t matter how often she tried, she really couldn’t get excited about shopping.
There it was again.
That tickling, on the edge of her safety net. She always put her confusion barrier up when in the city. Anyone wanting to approach her would be stifled at five paces away, their decision to approach would waver, and hopefully they would give up their effort. Any other pedestrian, not concerned or not noticing her, would walk right on through it. It was a handy device that kept her safe and a secret she shared that put her mother’s mind at rest. Besides, you never knew when someone from the ‘Nursery’ might be checking up on your life. Cursed people. Thank God she’d escaped, been adopted by loving, indulgent parents and was managing to live her life to the fullest.
The sensation tickled her back again and she stopped mid-stride, turned, and looked down the street. There he was again, the same young man who’d stared at her in the supermarket the other day while she’d been shopping with her mother. He had to be about her own age—too young to be a government agent. What did he want from her? Probably some creep who stalked people, unless it was a coincidence? Could he be g-altered too?
Did he recognise her from the Nursery? The children had mixed socially when they were growing up until the magic age of seven. Any friendships formed were then split asunder as some stayed, some were adopted, and some seemed to vanish overnight. His face didn’t register in her memory. Had he been adopted as well? To be out in the world he must have been. Those ‘conscripted’ didn’t enjoy the luxury of free will.
She ran her gaze slowly over him, taking in his tall frame, broad shoulders and thick, dark hair. He met her gaze with equal interest before she turned and walked on. She could feel his indecision prickling again behind her. If he really wanted to talk to her, then her confusion barrier would be stopping him. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She could feel his puzzled thoughts bouncing off her barrier, as other pedestrians streamed past close to her and wove between them. No doubt he couldn’t work out how they could get close to her and he couldn’t.
She wondered if he’d work out how to break through the barrier. No one else had so far. It wasn’t that she was against men or found the opposite sex unattractive. It was simply a matter of safety first. On reaching the corner she took the steps into the train station at a run, glad to be out of the wind, but stopped to read the digital notice board’s moving message. There was a ten-minute wait till her next train on Platform three. Should she get a coffee to sip on the train? She checked her barrier and found no tickling, no irritation. He must have given up or moved away. Pity, obviously no stickability. He’d looked rather nice too. Ah well, he might try again and she just might let him approach next time.
* * * *
The wind had dropped by the time the train reached North Brighton, so she walked along the shopping area and turned down the side street heading for home under the overhanging trees. She was glad of their shade. The spring foliage, a bright green, scattered its shade on the uneven footpath, breaking the sunlight into small patches. She watched her step, having tripped before on the rising roots that broke up the footpath. Her mind in free-wheel, she jumped in fright at a voice by her shoulder.
“Gosh, you are a hard lady to get close enough to speak to.”
She turned and there he was at her shoulder, with a grin of accomplishment spread across his face. “That’s a real fancy defence shield you have up. Never seen anything like that before.”
More shocked than surprised to find him so close without having felt his approach, fear caused her throat to tighten. “Who are you?” Her voice had an edge to it she hadn’t intended.
He stepped around in front of her and put out his hand. “Can I introduce myself? I’m William Corban, ex-Nursery like yourself, g-altered and free in society. Also like you. I’m not a threat. I’m not a stalker. I’m here with an offer for you, if you’ll let me talk to you for a few moments.”
All her senses warned her to be careful, and she didn’t return his smile. Despite his boyish charms and good looks, he could be a government agent. Then again, he did say ex-Nursery.
“Do you mean the Nursery at Shepperton?”
“Yep, that’s the one. I escaped as a seven-year-old, like you did. Got adopted and have made my way in life. Great feeling, marvellous life, albeit a bit lonely at times. I can’t seem to click very easily with the ‘norms.’ How about you?”
She looked around. It seemed a bit stupid to be standing on the footpath, and her sense of unease had faded. “Shall we walk back to the shops and have a coffee somewhere?”
“You could always take me home to meet your mother.” How did he know so much about her? This rattled her and she snapped.
“Why should I do that?”
“Because it’s safer to talk at your place than in a coffee shop.” He had a point.
“As long as you promise not to frighten my mother. She’s a bit hard of hearing and I love her dearly.”
“I’ll be my usual charming self, I promise.” His boyish grin flashed at her again.
“My Dad died last year, so we are both a bit fragile still.”
“Yes, I read he’d died.”
“How do you know so much about me, William?”
“I work in IT Belinda. I’m a bit of a geek, and in my spare time I try and track down our fellow freed nursery companions. I have a proposition to put to you, once we’re indoors.”
“How did you get through my barrier? You’re the first person to do so, and I didn’t even feel you coming.”
“I jumped. I’ll tell you about that once we’re inside. Shall we just walk now?” He took her hand in his. “Let’s act naturally, shall we?”
Despite the surprises of the last few moments, she enjoyed the warmth of his hand clasp and went along with the playacting. She stretched her stride to keep up with his long legs. He seemed to know the way.
“Do you think we’re being watched?” she asked, a flutter of fear in her voice.
“One can never be too careful.”
“I suppose you know where I live as well.”
“I do. I’m been hovering around you for the last couple of weeks. Haven’t you noticed?”
“I remember you from the supermarket last week. I was out with Mother.”
“Yes. If you’d been alone, I would’ve spoken to you.” His voice carried an enthusiasm for life she hadn’t noticed in anyone else she’d met. He didn’t have the diffident air of concealment g-alters often carried. As she looked at him, striding along beside her, his arm swinging hers, their hands clasped, the sheer energy of him captivated her. He caught her look, his eyes twinkling with delight.
“Lovely day for a walk isn’t it.? Call me Wills. I prefer it to William.”
* * * *
He followed her down the path and waited as she unlocked the front security door before they walked into the hallway of the red brick house. A common style like so many in that area it had a solidity about it to withstand Melbourne’s elements. Built to be cool in the summer its double-bricked walls kept out the heat. Unfortunately these homes were often bitterly cold in the winter and required a lot of heating. Once heated, they could be kept warm, but at a cost. Good location; quick glances to the side showed tasteful furnishing. Serious money here. She really had fallen on her feet.
He trailed behind her as she walked through the kitchen, through a glassed-in sun porch and out to the back garden. She discarded a scarf and coat as she went, calling out loudly.
“Mother, I’m home. I’ve brought a visitor for dinner.”
A small woman rose from her knees where she’d been working at the edge of the most magnificent home garden William had ever seen. It was a riot of colour. A high fence made it a suntrap, warm and lush. The fine mist of an irrigation system drifted across the soft lush lawn. He was entranced. He had to pull his gaze away from the beauty and fix upon the crinkly smiling face of the woman approaching him, almost hidden by a large battered straw hat decorated with a wide, faded-blue bow, her hand outstretched in greeting.
“This is Wills Corban, Mother. He’s ex-Nursery like me. We met at the shops. He wants to talk about old times.” Belinda raised her eyebrows at him. “You will talk to Mother, too?” It sounded more of a statement than a request, and he nodded.
“Pleased to meet you, Wills.” The older woman put her hand up and stroked the side of his face, her fingertips trailing down his jaw line to rest under his chin. “Another lost baby.” She seemed to realise what she was doing, and withdrew her hand. “My apologies, Wills.”
His eyes prickled. So strong were her feelings of compassion that he felt swamped and tears threatened to crack his veneer of good humour. Memories of his fearful childhood in the Nursery flooded his mind and he fought to slam them back in their memory jar. He forced his eyes wider and concentrated on this small woman’s weathered face and kind eyes.
“Quite all right Mrs. Barrington. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He wrapped her small hands in his and rubbed them warmly, reluctant to lose contact with this giving soul.
“Time I stopped anyway, darling. How was your day?” Dropping her hat on the nearby wheelbarrow, she gestured for him to follow them into the conservatory. He noticed Mrs. Barrington squeeze her daughter’s waist, her head touching lightly against Belinda’s shoulder.
“I’ll make the tea. You two young ones talk.”
Belinda’s gesture took in the room, indicating he could sit wherever he liked. He chose a cane chair where he could see the garden. Pointing outside, he said, “That is the most magnificent cottage garden I have ever seen. Does your mother look after it all?” “You must know I’m a landscape gardener, William, since you know so much else about me. But I give her a hand with all the heavy stuff, so it’s a joint project.” She turned her head to look through the glass. “It is rather a good advertisement when clients come to visit. There’s a lot of samples out there for them to choose from.” She shook her head. “Enough small talk, Wills. What’s all this about?”
He noted the authoritative tone in her voice. Time to talk. Time to be honest and open.
“Do you want to wait for your mother to come back, or shall I start?”
“Right. Here goes.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and locked his gaze on her beautiful grey-blue eyes. He swore they even had a touch of lavender in them. Which gene had caused that?
“Where to start? Right. Like you I grew up at the Nursery, one of the many g-altered children they bred, and I fear are still breeding there using volunteer surrogates.
“I was adopted out at seven, and had wonderful parents who indulged my every whim, but they were both killed in a car crash a couple of years ago. It seems that most of us who reached seven and didn’t display any talents that were of use to the government were adopted by wealthy childless couples, often those who were middle-aged and could afford the fee.
“So here I am, well educated and like you, hiding a talent or two from the world.”
“How do you know I’m hiding a talent?”
“Pretty obvious, with your confusion barrier. I think you should be a bit more circumspect when using it. If a defence department agent bounces against it, he’ll notice it straight away.” She seemed to consider his comment, but said nothing, so he carried on.
“I have wealth and security, but I work designing computer programmes. I enjoy the challenge and of course I need to have a social life of sorts.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Actually, I’m a hacker by night. I enter the Nursery’s records and government files and find out where the g-altered adopted children are and how they are progressing. Sometimes I approach them, having made sure they’re not under surveillance, because I hack into those records as well, and I offer to delete them from the Nursery records. I can’t delete them from the general electoral roll, or any other normal governments systems, but I can delete them from the Nursery records and thus from the surveillance checks that are run.”
“And this is your offer to me?”
“Yes, if you want me to. “
“But why would you do this?”
“Because I’ve realised that many of us didn’t develop our talents until we were nearly seven or after turning seven, and most of those children managed to keep their secret. Of course, some of the children didn’t notice they had any special talents at all, and perhaps they still don’t. I just think I’m giving them an opportunity to slip away from the Nursery net, slide into normal society, bury their past and create a new one.”
“Did you find out my details from following me or from the Nursery records?”
“Mostly from the records, which are fairly current as you were last watched when your father died. They came to the funeral and watched you closely. Often under stress, talents show up when emotions are too strong to hold them in place.” He sat up and gave her his best smile. “I have to admit that I thought you looked rather attractive and wondered how someone as fine-boned as you are can be a successful landscape gardener. It’s heavy work.”
“I know, but I manage.” Her smile tilted one corner of her mouth and he suspected she had a talent that helped her.
“Ready to share?”
“Not until you tell me how you broke through my safety net.”
The safest person to talk to was another g-altered soul, so he told her.
“Providing I have been somewhere, or can see the place I want to be, I just jump there, sometimes over a fair distance. It happens in an instant and don’t ask me how I do it, because I don’t know. I certainly don’t do it in public places, which is why I had to wait until you were alone on the side street before I jumped. I walked quickly around the corner, jumped over your barrier, and landed beside your shoulder.”
Mrs. Barrington came in with the tray of coffee and cups. Even the biscuits looked homemade and William realised he’d been so focused on getting close to Belinda he’d missed lunch. Belinda took the tray from her mother, drew her up a chair, and began to pour the coffee. William nodded to her questions about his preferences and answered Mrs. Barrington’s question as to how they met.
“Belinda will fill you in on the details, Mrs. Barrington, but I assure you I only have Belinda’s safety and well-being at heart, and as an adopted g-altered like her, I think people like you and your late husband, and my own late parents, are the salt of the earth. I know that’s a cliché, but without your love and generosity there would be a lot of miserable children out there.”
“I think there still are, Wills. Not every child landed in a happy home. Some were bought simply to be made to work. Like an investment. My husband and I just love our little girl and we blessed the day we got her.” Her weathered fingers reached out to clasp Belinda’s arm and pat her shoulder. She held his gaze fixed with hers.
“I may be small, Mr. Corban, but I’m really quite fierce and will protect my lamb to my last breath.”
“I promise not to harm a hair on her head,” he said.
“Mother, Wills has offered to remove me from the Nursery database, which would mean I wouldn’t be subject to any further surveillance checks. He says I was last checked when we buried Daddy. What do you think?”
Mrs. Barrington looked at William.
“What about yourself, William? Have you removed your name?”
“No. As I’m the one doing the hacking, I think its better I stay on the List. I can also check when I’m being monitored by them, or a check is due. Because I’m in IT and programming, I seem to be subject to more frequent checks.”
“I think that’s your answer, darling.” She looked at her daughter. “It’s up to you, but I would leave well enough alone at present. It’s not long since Daddy died and someone might remember you used to be on it and miss your name. Perhaps wait a couple of years? The staff often change in these places and memories are shorter then.”
He put down his cup, leaned back in his chair and spread his arms expansively.
“Absolutely up to you, Belinda. Besides, I really wanted to meet you, regardless of your decision, and I hope we can stay in touch.” He turned to her mother. “Please, can I wander in your garden? It’s like a small miracle. Do you talk to your plants?” His question, made half in jest, brought a sharp look from Belinda.
“Yes, I do.” Mrs. Barrington’s laughter trilled like a stream over rocks, bubbling with delight. “I’m a firm believer in talking to plants. Come and I’ll show you round.”
* * * *
An hour later, with the chill of evening cooling the street, he and Belinda stood at the front gate. He couldn’t find another excuse to delay his departure and he desperately wanted to see her again.
“You haven’t told me how you manage to be a landscape gardener. What about all those heavy rocks and wheelbarrow loads of dirt and concrete?”
“I’d hoped you’d forgotten that.”
“I’m able to grab things, Wills. Mentally. So I load up the wheelbarrow and make the effort look great, but I’m mentally rolling it along as well. I refuse to let Mother do any lifting at all.” She grinned. “The darling thinks I’m the strongest girl in the world. I suspect she knows damn well I’m not all muscle, but we don’t discuss it. She knows about my safety barrier, though. It keeps her mind at ease when I’m out on my own.”
He picked up her hand as if to shake it goodbye but held it instead and locked his gaze on her fabulous eyes. “Can I see you again, Belinda? Would you like to come with me next time I locate one of us? Two of us together could make contact a lot easier, and it could be fun.”
“Only if we take public transport. I don’t know how to jump.”
“Agreed. I’ll give you a call.” He took a chance with a quick kiss on her cheek, too fast for her to object. With a grin he swung away and strode off down the street, stopped at the corner and raised a hand in farewell.
* * * *
Rubbing her hand against her cheek where he’d kissed her, she watched him right till the last moment and couldn’t decide if he’d walked around the corner or disappeared right on the cusp of it.
She would make the effort and go out with him. It would be nice to share memories with someone who knew what the first seven years of life had been like for those born into the Nursery. As happy as she was with her life, she knew the black patches in her memories were caused by the terror of a childhood full of uncertainty and lack of human kindness. Nightmares had broken her sleep, assailed her childhood imaginings, and had her parents up in the night, holding her tight, rocking her on their knees, murmuring their love, filling the abyss of loneliness that institutionalised rearing had created.
Wills, he said to call him. It suited him. A willing nature, a willing smile and his good looks were an added bonus. She had to trust him. By approaching her, he’d put his own security on the line. And this was his hobby? Tracking down his g-altered peers and ‘liberating” them by releasing them into society to make their own way upstream? There could be thousands out there. Next time she saw him she’d ask.