Disclaimers - See Part 1.
A SUMMER REUNION - PART 4
"Are you awake, Dani?" Alison stubbed her bare toe on something in the dark, and cursed under her breath.
"Ugh!" came a mumbled reply from the sofa. "I am now."
Alison drew back the curtains, and early morning sunlight flooded into the sitting room revealing what had tripped her - one of Summer's boots. She picked it up, intending to restore it to its rightful owner who was now in the kitchen.
"You'll be wanting this as well," said Dani dryly.
She held out something black and lacy that on closer inspection proved to be … Oh God, no! … Summer's bra. Alison took it from her friend and giggled nervously.
"Sorry about that. I wasn't expecting her home 'til tonight. Um. I hope she didn't disturb you too much when she came in."
"If she didn’t," said Dani, propping herself up on one elbow and scratching her tousled hair, "the noises you two made later on would have. My God, Alison!"
Hysteria threatened to overcome Alison and she squeezed onto the sofa beside Dani, then put her head in her hands.
Dani shuffled around until she was sitting up, her lower half still encased in the sleeping bag. She draped an arm consolingly round Alison's shoulders and chuckled. "You should see your face!"
"I'm so -"
"Mortified … embarrassed … ashamed?" supplied Dani.
"Vocal?" growled a voice from the doorway, making both their heads head jerk round.
The white towelling bathrobe showed Summer's golden skin to perfection, and for a moment Alison simply stared at her appreciatively. Then she registered what Summer had said and her cheeks went hot. I'm going to get you for that!
Dani, meanwhile, had managed to close her gaping mouth. "Hey, Alligator," she murmured, "She's stunning! I've never considered switching teams, but I dunno …."
"Why thank you, Dani," purred Summer.
She strolled towards them and on the table next to the sofa set down a tray containing three steaming mugs of coffee and a pile of buttered toast. "Toast, anyone?"
Alison smothered a giggle at the blush suffusing Dani's face. She should have warned her how keen Summer's hearing was.
"Please," said Dani, visibly trying to recover her composure. Summer held out the plate and Alison's friend helped herself to a slice.
"It is Dani, right?" said Summer. "We haven't been formally introduced."
"Uh, right. And you must be Summer." Dani held out her free hand and Summer shook it. "Ali's told me all about you."
"Not all I hope. And don’t you mean 'Alligator'?"
Alison groaned and shot Dani a look. "Sorry," mouthed Dani.
Alison shrugged. Summer she noticed, was eating her toast standing up, hurriedly cramming in bites between gulps of coffee. "Slow down," she chided. "You'll give yourself indigestion."
"I'm in kind of a rush," said Summer. "Got to get a move on if I'm to get back in time for the morning session."
Alison sighed. She handed a coffee to Dani, and claimed the remaining mug for herself. "You'll be back in good time for the Reunion tonight, though, won’t you?"
"Um … I'll be a bit late." Summer refused to look Alison in the eye.
"Oh, just something I've got to take care of, hon," said the ringmaster evasively. "But don’t worry. Grig has got the Big Top and entertainment under control. Any problems, tell him." She finished her coffee and placed the empty mug on the tray.
Alison frowned. "What 'entertainment'?"
But Summer's mouth was suddenly pressed against hers in a kiss that left her wondering what her own name was, and by the time Alison had recovered her wits, Summer had vanished into the bathroom and was whistling loudly in the shower.
Dani glanced at her, smiled enigmatically, and crunched her toast.
Alison sighed and wondered what Summer was up to. "Do you have this kind of trouble with Joby?"
"All the time, 'hon'."
Dani's use of Summer's endearment brought yet another wave of heat to Alison's cheeks. Sometimes, she thought ruefully, I really wish I didn’t blush so easily.
Summer made it back to the Stunt School with ten minutes to spare. The last day's coursework was light, fortunately, concentrating as it did on the 'business' side of being a stuntee.
Wyatt covered: getting qualified in the disciplines for which his course had provided merely a taster; medical certificates; first aid certification; getting on the Equity Register; insurance; choosing an agent; portfolios and CVs; networking…. Summer was still undecided where her future lay, but she took copious notes anyway.
When the course finally drew to a close halfway through the afternoon, she said her good-byes to Geoff, Helen, and the other stuntees, stuffed her few possessions into her overnight bag, and headed for the carpark ….
It must be my lucky day, thought Summer as she came to a halt. Parked right next to her van was the ugly lime green Porsche she had learned was Phil's pride and joy. For a long moment, she gazed at it and absently rubbed her still tender abdomen. Then she glanced round - the coast was clear - crouched and set to work on the tyres. Seconds later there was a faint hissing noise, then another …. When all four tyres had been dealt with, she straightened.
As Summer threw her travel bag inside the van and got jauntily into the driver's seat, she knew she was wearing what Alison called her 'feral' grin. Payback's a bitch, ain't it, bullethead?! The grin widened as she drove away ….
A few miles along the A4, Summer pulled into a lay-by and rang Grigori.
"How's the Big Top doing?"
"The build-up crew finished this morning, no problems. Even Mrs Carmichael seems pleasantly surprised."
"Good." She blew out her breath in relief. "What about the entertainment? Everyone decided what they're going to do?"
"Yes. We should be able to keep Alison's guests entertained for an hour."
"Great." Summer drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, wondering if there was anything else she had forgotten. "Oh, and no fireworks this time, Grig. OK?"
He groaned. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you, Boss?"
She grinned, thinking of a recent party when too much beer had affected Grigori's ability to juggle. One of his torches had landed in a box full of Roman Candles, rockets, and Catherine Wheels; seconds later, it was like WW3. "Nope."
He sighed. "No, no fireworks. Wouldn’t want to ruin Alison's big day."
"So, how's she doing?"
Grigori thought for a moment. "A bit tense," he offered.
Summer rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Well, I suppose that's to be expected."
"And she thinks you're up to something."
"Me?" Summer put on her 'butter wouldn't melt' voice.
"Yes, you," said Grigori dryly. "Can't imagine why."
Summer laughed. "Talking of which, I'm due at Staverton in an hour, so I'd better get moving." She paused. "Thanks for looking after everything while I've been away, Grig. I really appreciate it."
"No problem." He sounded slightly uncomfortable. "Glad to take up the slack. You’ve done the same often enough, God knows."
She glanced at her watch. Shit! "Gotta go, Grig. See you later, OK?"
"Well, it's certainly different, dear." Veronica Carmichael stared up at the interior of the blue-and-white marquee that had swallowed up most of her back garden.
Alison followed her gaze to where a circus hand was clambering like a monkey around the superstructure, installing the Circus's sound system.
At the far end, the DJ was setting up his ancient equipment. No wonder he was so cheap! On the tarpaulin covered turf beside his turntables were three boxes overflowing with vinyl singles, EPs, and LPs. Earlier, when he was talking to Grigori about his power requirements, she had slipped over and pulled out a few singles, then winced and put them back.
Oh well, she thought ruefully. Black Box's 'Ride on Time' and Kylie and Jason's 'Especially For You' would trigger a few memories, if nothing else.
Alison stole a glance at her mother, relieved and pleasantly surprised she was taking the upheaval so well. Since noon there'd been a constant stream of people traipsing in and out, ferrying chairs, trestle tables, and electrical equipment. The circus hands had thoughtfully put down planks and tarpaulins, but even so, she feared the turf was taking a beating.
She turned slowly through 360 degrees, trying to picture the marquee filled with old girls. Without the banks of tiered seating that were normally present, the Big Top seemed huge. Was one trestle table enough for all that food or should she ask Grigori for another? Would everyone be able to hear the pop music? Suppose there was a rush for the loo and all fifty guests needed to use her mother's bathroom at once ….
She became aware of her mother's quizzical gaze. "It was this or nothing," she told her defensively. "The venue was double booked."
"So you said, dear."
Alison sighed. "Sorry. It's … beginning to get to me," she admitted. "I wish Summer was here." For the umpteenth time in the last hour she scanned the Big Top's entrance. No sign of Summer, but Dani, wearing her Reunion outfit - a lacy silver-blue top and white pedal pushers - was talking animatedly to a striking looking man in grey overalls.
"Grig," called Alison. The man looked up and waved at her. "Any news of Summer?"
"She's on schedule," he yelled back.
What the heck does that mean?
"Alison, dear." Her mother's voice brought her out her reverie. "Do you think I should check on the caterers …."
"No, Mother." Her voice was firm. "Let them do their own thing."
When the caterers had first seen the kitchen, they had nearly had a fit. It was large and immaculately appointed, but the plump woman in charge had taken one look at it and shrieked, "No gas!"
It had taken all Alison's skill to soothe her mother's ruffled feathers and get her to demonstrate her expensive electric oven and hob, then, once the caterers had grumpily conceded that they could probably be able to cope … at a pinch, to drag her interested and overhelpful parent out from under their heels.
Now the hot kitchen was awash with people in starched white aprons and hats, and every available surface was covered with mousses, terrines, canapés, quiches, sliced meats, vol-au-vents, crudités, dips…. The last thing they needed was Veronica Carmichael fussing round.
The phone in Alison's jacket pocket rang, and she pulled it out eagerly, hoping it was Summer.
"Is that Miss Carmichael?" came an unfamiliar man's voice.
"This is Jim, from the Number One Travel Company. Um ... I'm afraid the coach we were planning to supply you with this evening has broken down, Miss Carmichael."
"How long will it take you to get it fixed?"
"Um, that's why I'm calling you." He sounded embarrassed." Our garage says it needs a new part which is currently out of stock."
Alison ground her teeth together. "Well, you'll just have to provide us with a different one, then."
"Um. They're all in use. Any other day -"
"That's not good enough."
"Well, I'm really sorry, but -"
"Can't you get hold of a coach from another company?"
"Well, yes, but it'll take two hours …."
"Two hours? Is that the best you can do?" Alison resisted the urge to throw her mobile phone across the Big Top and ran a hand through her hair.
"Problem?" Grigori had come up beside her, Dani hard on his heels, and both were gazing anxiously at her.
Alison covered the mouthpiece. "The coach I hired to bring people from the original venue is going to be at least two hours late."
Dani sucked in her breath.
"Use the circus vans," suggested Grigori. "They can go as a convoy."
Alison gaped at him. "What? Those clapped out old things? You're not serious!"
He grinned. "What better way for your guests to begin their authentic 'circus experience' …. Think about it, Alison. This'll be one reunion people won’t forget in a hurry."
"You got that right!" Torn between laughing and crying, she wondered what Summer would advise. Then she took a deep breath and let it out. "What the heck, Grig," she said. "It's not like I have a choice. Let's go for it."
She put the phone to her mouth and interrupted the still burbling man. "Jim," she said. "Forget the coach. Just make sure you refund my deposit. I've made other arrangements."
The flight from Jersey was half an hour late - battling against a head wind, apparently - and Summer had been pacing up and down for so long it was a wonder she hadn’t worn a groove in the floor. She checked her watch for the umpteenth time.
The Reunion should be well under way by now. She wondered how Alison was getting on without her, and whether everything was going to plan. But hey - if it wasn't, she'd call me, right? And anyway, she's got Grig.
The faint droning noise that had been hovering on the edge of her conscious hearing for past few minutes was growing louder, she realized, and she rushed to the lounge window and peered out.
On the horizon, just visible in the still light evening sky, was a speck, growing steadily larger as it neared the little airport that served Cheltenham and Gloucester.
Eagerly she turned to look at the Arrivals board just as the 'DELAYED' beside the Jersey flight was replaced by 'DUE 9:00pm'.
Yes! She restrained the impulse to pump her arm and went back to her pacing, ignoring the annoyed glances from the other people sitting patiently on the hard plastic seats.
A few minutes later, the drone had become a roar, and she was watching the Cessna turbo prop trundle along the runway.
She pulled the creased photo from her jacket pocket and studied it. A middle-aged woman in a simple grey dress, her easy grin belying her ramrod straight posture, was surrounded by grinning, green uniformed girls, one of whom was a younger, much fatter Alison. Summer tried mentally to add ten years to the picture of Miss Pargeter.
The first of the passengers began to filter through: a red-faced businessman carrying a briefcase; a young couple in garish holidaywear; a leathery skinned old man with a battered guitar; and a greyhaired woman of in a pale blue blazer and floral print dress.
The latter scanned those waiting, her keen gaze settling on Summer and a smile forming.
"Miss Pargeter?" Summer darted forward, her hand outstretched
"Six foot tall indeed!" said Alison's former Housemistress. "You must be Summer."
The handshake was firm and slightly brisk, noticed Summer approvingly
"I'm so sorry I'm late, dear," said Miss Pargeter. "The Captain said it was a head wind or someth-"
"Have you got any other luggage?" Summer eyed the small travel bag Miss Pargeter had placed on the floor beside her.
"Um … no. Thought I'd travel light. Since I'm only staying the one night."
"We'd better get on, then." Summer reached for the bag and slung it over one shoulder. "This way." She led the older woman towards the carpark exit.
As they neared the battered old van with its Circus logo, Miss Pargeter's footsteps faltered momentarily then picked up. She got into the passenger seat without a word. Summer liked that.
"OK?" she asked, when they were both strapped in.
Miss Pargeter nodded. "Have at it, my dear."
Summer grinned at her passenger and switched on the ignition ….
Alison searched the milling faces for a six foot tall, raven haired beauty with ice blue eyes, and sighed. Where the hell is she? I could do with some moral support right about now.
It was overwhelming seeing all these familiar faces - or nearly familiar, anyway. Ten years had made quite a difference. Faces were fatter, thinner, some seemed to have melted like wax …. Hairstyles and colours were different too. Figures were definitely different: Megan Gallagher had expanded to twice her width - but then she was pregnant; and had Nicole Dent always had those huge breasts, or were they implants? Alison made a note to ask Dani. Come to think of it, where the hell was Dani?
The one thing that had stayed the same was the voices, she decided. And the laughs. Abigail Bacon still laughed like a drain. Can drains laugh, anyway?
"What a super idea, Ali," brayed Vicky Schofield, bringing her back to the here and now with a jolt. "A circus tent! It's so original."
Alison had always felt she lost several IQ points merely from being in Vicky's presence, and something of that feeling remained.
"Hi, Vicky. Glad you could come." She turned to the man standing beside the elegant woman and smiled. "And this is?"
"My husband, Roger. He's in retailing"
"Pleased to meet you, Roger." His handshake was limp and clammy and Alison escaped from it as soon as possible.
As he began to drone on and on about his business, she fixed on a smile and wondered if her eyes looked glazed. Is that a toupee? It looks so artificial. Hastily, she pulled her gaze away from his too neat and too black hair.
"How interesting," she managed, when she could get a word in edgeways, "but I'm afraid there are things I must do. See you later, Vicky … Roger. Bye." She made a dash for the exit, just in time to see the convoy of circus vans unloading its passengers.
The new arrivals spilled into the garden, in various states of agitation and excitement.
"Well, really," the still statuesque Grace Howard was saying to a man with a pony tail and an earring (her boyfriend?), "God only knows how that thing got past its MOT."
"Oh don’t be so stuffy, Grace. It was fun. All the fun of the fair, in fact." Alison recognized the tiny woman in a skimpy pink top and black harem trousers.
Lucy stopped in front of her and beamed. "Ali! How have you been?"
Alison smiled back. "Fine," she said, wondering how on earth you were supposed to summarize ten years without sounding trite. Um .. my Father died. I've got my own place - yes, still in Cheltenham. Job? I'm a journalist now. And I've shacked up with this gorgeous ringmaster, a woman …. Oh, sorry. Didn't I mention I was gay?
She suppressed a laugh and changed the subject. "I thought your husband was supposed to be coming, Lucy. Change of plan?"
"No. He'll be here later. He was called out on a case - a sick horse."
The Ladies' College had encouraged its Day Girls to apply to University, but Lucy had always wanted to be a vet's assistant. She had got her desire, remembered Alison. She had also got the vet into the bargain!
But there was work to be done ….
"Go on through." Alison gestured towards the Big Top. "There'll be food and drink in a moment. I'm just going to check on the caterers."
While Lucy and the other late arrivals continued on towards the blue-and-white marquee, Alison took a deep breath of cool night air and headed the other way, towards the kitchen …
If Summer remembered correctly, there was a 'Dangerous Curves Ahead' sign further up this particular road. She thought of the shapely blonde waiting for her at the Reunion and smirked. How apt!
The sleek powder blue Mercedes that had been sitting on the van's tail for the last mile signalled to overtake. She wasn't surprised. The driver had clearly been itching to do so, and this stretch of dual carriageway was his last opportunity for quite a while. The way the Mercedes was acting though, weaving slightly from side to side, made her frown.
"Something wrong?" asked Miss Pargeter.
Summer glanced at her grey-haired passenger. "Drunk driver," she said.
"Oh dear." The former Housemistress twisted in her seat to get a better look
As the Mercedes pulled out and speeded up, Summer slowed slightly to allow it to pass. It drew level, and she glanced across. The driver, a youth in an expensive suit and hideous tie, grinned at her and waved.
She ignored him, and returned her gaze to the road, then noticed that the Mercedes seemed to be matching her speed rather than overtaking.
"What the …?"
She touched the brakes again, dropping back a few yards, only to find the Mercedes slowing to match speeds.
"What is he thinking?" asked Miss Pargeter.
"I don’t think he is thinking," growled Summer, looking across again to find the youth now leering at her. "At least not with his brain. Sod this." She floored the accelerator and the van jerked forward, leaving the Mercedes behind.
She suddenly recollected who her passenger was and looked guiltily at her. "Sorry!"
"It takes more than bad language to shock me, Summer," said Miss Pargeter crisply. "You forget - all those teenage girls I had in my care." She rolled her eyes.
"Including Alison." Summer grinned.
"Dear Ali." Miss Pargeter smiled, then her smile slipped. "Oh my. Is he …?"
Summer followed Miss Pargeter's wide-eyed gaze to see that the Merc had pulled up alongside again. "Jackass!"
This time the driver was gesturing her to pull over, and then apparently he wanted Summer to …. She sighed. His gestures were crude and explicit, and he had as much chance as a snowball in Hell.
"Pull over yourself," she muttered, gesturing back, uneasily aware that the dual carriageway was fast coming to an end and if the Merc didn't get back in lane it was going to meet the oncoming traffic head on.
At that moment, an oncoming lorry blared its horn in warning, and the Merc driver's head whipped round to face the front. His eyes bulged, and he yanked the steering wheel hard over. There was a loud bang and the van lurched violently. With a terrible rending sound, the Merc scraped along the van's nearside.
"Shit!" Summer tapped the brakes and swerved towards the verge. Her instinct was to jam her foot into the floorboard, but she overrode it, the lessons Wyatt had instilled fresh in her mind
Another bang was followed by another violent lurch and the screech of more tortured metal. The Merc was desperate to get out of the lorry's path and wasn't about to let a little thing like a van stop him.
Summer tapped the brakes again and wrestled with the steering wheel, trying to anticipate forward and lateral motion. The van tipped up onto two wheels. Got to stop it from rolling! Instinctively, she compensated, almost gasping with relief when the van bounced safely back onto all four tyres.
They were spinning crazily across the dual carriageway now, the view through the windscreen a blur of tarmac, grass, tarmac again. Horn honked loudly as other cars swerved and missed the careering van by the narrowest of margins.
Summer focussed on how the van was handling and on the direction of the other vehicles, only dimly aware that the grey-haired woman sitting next to her had clasped her hands over her face against the inevitable crash … that never came.
They came to a dead stop on the grass verge, the van still rocking slightly and Summer realizing with disbelief that she wasn't going to become a bloody smear on the tarmac after all. Numbly, she watched the Merc's tail lights vanish into the distance.
As the sound of blood pounding in her ears subsided, she became aware of other sounds: the engine idling, her own and Miss Pargeter's harsh breathing. She realized she was gripping the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles were white. She forced the cramped fingers to relax.
Miss Pargeter lowered her hands and blinked in startlement. "How did we …? How did you …?"
Summer regarded her passenger wanly. "I have no idea."
She undid her safety belt, opened the door, and got out rather unsteadily. To a soundtrack of cars rushing by unaware there had nearly been a fatal accident, she stooped and inspected the damage. She was examining the gouges along the wing and driver's door - Shit, that was close! - when she became conscious that Miss Pargeter was standing next to her. She straightened and turned.
"You know, when I said I'd come to this reunion of Ali's," said Miss Pargeter, "I though it would make a change, add a little excitement to my boring retirement. But this!" She began to shake.
Summer was about to apologize when she realized that the former Housemistress wasn't trembling with shock and distress but was actually chuckling. She stared at the older woman, at first disconcerted by her reaction, then appreciative of it.
Miss Pargeter's chuckle was infectious, and Summer soon found herself joining in. They stood companionably side by side, gazing up at the stars then watching the traffic, letting the adrenaline drain from their systems.
"Well," said Summer at last, when the rubbery feeling in her legs had disappeared. "Alison will be wondering what's happened to us, and I think the van will still get us where we need to go." She glanced at Miss Pargeter. "That is, assuming you still feel up to it."
Miss Pargeter raised an eyebrow. "Of course I'm up to it, dear. Lead on."
"I've found someone interesting you should meet, Ali. This is Sam."
Dani's voice made Alison turn. She gazed at the bearded man, roughly her own height, who was standing next to her friend, smiled, and held out her hand. Then she paused. There was something familiar about him, yet she knew she had never met him before.
His handshake was firm. "Hello, Ali."
His voice was deep and slightly husky, and once again oddly familiar. She tore her gaze away from his brown eyes, which seemed anxious for some reason, and glanced at Dani to find her old friend trying not to laugh.
"What?" Alison's glance flicked to Sam and then back to Dani again. She was none the wiser. "Dani?"
"You don’t remember me, do you?" The deep voice claimed her attention again. "It’s hardly surprising. I didn’t use to look like -" Sam gestured at himself, "- this."
Alison frowned. "But we've never … I'd have remembered if we'd …." She paused and looked closer. Those sad brown eyes …. Her own eyes widened and she put a hand to her mouth. "Samantha?"
Dani clapped her hands. "Bullseye!"
"It's Sam, now," said the former Samantha Bradley. "I changed it by deed poll."
"You've changed more than your name," said Alison, gazing at him in awe. "Wow. You are so brave!"
He frowned uncertainly. "For having a sex change?"
"No, for coming here tonight. God knows, I was terrified what people would say when they found out I was gay, but you …."
He blinked at her. "You're gay?"
She nodded. "And my partner is a circus ringmaster." She glanced around … still no sign of Summer. "She should be here later."
"A ringmaster? And I thought I was going to be the only exotic species here tonight!"
The anxiety in Sam's eyes had lessened and Dani gave Ali an approving glance. "See you later," she told the two of them. "I'm off to mingle."
Alison rolled her eyes and she and Sam watched Dani make a beeline for a group of old girls, elbow her way into its centre, and start chatting animatedly.
"Diplomatic Service," explained Alison.
"Ah," said Sam.
"So." Alison threaded Sam's arm through hers. "What have you been up to for the past ten years, then?"
'Back to Life' by Soul II Soul faded abruptly, and the opening strains of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' drowned out Sam's reply.
"What the …?"
Simultaneously, a commotion over by the entrance to the Big Top caught Alison's attention. For a moment, she stood frozen, then, tugging Sam with her, she hurried over to see what was going on.
A procession of gaily costumed clowns, jugglers, and acrobats was snaking into the marquee, the taken-aback guests retreating in front of it. In the lead were Egor and Maks … whacking each other over the head with a rubber chicken and a foam baseball bat respectively. The mischievous little clowns, clad in their yellow-and-tartan clown outfits, were tripping over their big feet in their eagerness to get revenge on one another.
Alison put her hand to her mouth as the clowns turned their attention to the audience, their change of tactics being met with screams of delight mixed with fear.
At least the jugglers were more … um, sedate, she thought ruefully. Grigori had changed out of his workman's overalls and was now wearing a blue spangled bodysuit. As she watched, he put down the hoops he had been using, picked up some torches and lit them, then resumed his juggling. People watched him open mouthed.
"Alison?" said Sam, in her ear. "Did you arrange this?"
"Um, no." Her gaze was transfixed by the tumbling and whirling flames. "Summer must have."
"The ringmaster I mentioned. This is her Big Top. These are her acts." She tore her gaze from Grigori, skimmed over the elegant acrobatics of the Dyakonov Troupe and Miss Clio's ladder balancing tricks, and searched for the circus's two strong men.
Tonio and Marcello were surrounded by a crowd of admiring women (and a few admiring men). Alison wondered what was the bigger attraction - their freshly oiled muscles, or the swimming trunks which must surely have cut off the circulation to something vital. The oohs and aahs and wolf whistles that greeted every flex and pose made it clear some of the Cheltenham Ladies' College old girls thought this was better than watching The Chippendales.
"How vulgar!" said someone behind Alison, she couldn't see who.
Sam smiled, his face transformed. "This is wonderful!" he said. And across the marquee, a beaming Lucy, now accompanied by her vet husband, was giving Alison the thumbs up sign.
Alison tried to look complacent but knew she had probably not succeeded in masking her flabbergasted delight.
Trust you to plan something like this and not tell, me, Summer, she thought, torn between affection and exasperation. Just wait 'til I get you home!
Since circus vehicles and other cars were parked on the verge for fifty yards in either direction, Summer had to park the van some distance from the house. She wondered what Veronica Carmichael's neighbours were making of the unusual upheaval, whether they were already writing letters of complaint to the Residents' Association and local council ….
"We're here." She got out, then reached back in for Miss Pargeter's overnight bag which was lying on the back seat. The former Housemistress walked round the front of the van to join her.
"Ready?" asked Summer.
Miss Pargeter smiled and nodded.
They walked the fifty yards then turned into the gravel drive leading to the Carmichael house. As Summer was guiding the Reunion's surprise guest towards the front door, it opened, and she looked up startled. Alison's mother stood silhouetted in the doorway.
Maybe the chaos in her garden has got too much for her and she's been hiding in the house, thought Summer. She came to a halt on the doorstep. "Mrs Carmichael," she said evenly.
"Summer." Veronica Carmichael's gaze settled on the grey-haired woman and she wrinkled her nose in puzzlement. The expression reminded Summer of Alison and she suppressed a grin.
"This is Miss Pargeter. She was Alison's Housemistress."
Mrs Carmichael's face cleared. "I thought you looked familiar."
"I'm very pleased to meet you." Miss Pargeter shook the outstretched hand. "You must be very proud of your daughter, Mrs Carmichael," she continued. "From what Summer tells me, she's grown into a fine young woman."
Mrs Carmichael looked a little startled at that, and also pleased. She drew back from the doorway and gestured in invitation. Miss Pargeter stepped through into the hall. Summer followed.
"Is there somewhere I can freshen up and change, Mrs Carmichael?" said Miss Pargeter. "I'm a little sticky after all this travelling."
Not to mention the slight brush with death! thought Summer dryly.
"Of course. This way."
They were following their hostess further into the house, the muffled chatter and music from the event in the back garden becoming louder, when Mrs Carmichael stopped so suddenly they almost ran into her. She turned, frowning.
"I thought you weren't going to be able come to the Reunion, Miss Pargeter. Alison said something about not having your current address."
Miss Pargeter looked pointedly at Summer. "Summer tracked me down. And as I expect you've found out by now, when she wants something, she can be very persuasive."
"Hmmmm." Veronica Carmichael looked speculatively at Summer, who tried not to blush.
"Um, while we're on the subject," said Summer, hoping she wasn't pushing her luck. "I promised Miss Pargeter she could stay the night here. I hope that's OK?" She indicated the travel bag she was carrying
"Oh … yes, that's fine," said Alison's mother almost absently. "I've plenty of room, as you know." She took the bag off her.
Summer almost fell over with astonishment. "Um, great," she said instead. She turned to Miss Pargeter. "I'll be back to get you in … say ten minutes, then. I have to get changed too." She indicated her scruffy jeans and T-shirt.
Miss Pargeter nodded.
With a sigh of relief, Summer headed out into the back garden in search of Grigori and the outfit he had promised to have cleaned and pressed and ready for her …
Sam and Lucy were successfully juggling three balls each, albeit very slowly and with fierce expressions of concentration. Dani was having less success.
"Like this?" she asked, throwing her red, yellow, and orange balls into the air all at once.
"Noooooo!" Grigori's howl of protest made heads turn, and Dani's frantic attempts to retrieve the plummeting balls only brought her into collision with Sam and Lucy.
Alison rolled her eyes at the threesome, now sprawled in a tangled giggling heap on the marquee floor. She exchanged a wry glance with Lucy's husband, Matt, and began retrieving the errant balls before someone broke an ankle on one.
Summer's 'entertainment' had proved to be a great icebreaker, Alison had been pleased to discover. Before the arrival of the circus performers, the reunion atmosphere had been distinctly stiff, not to mention cliquey. Now there was a much more carnival air, and people who had previously avoided one another were chatting eagerly to the circus acts. Of course, she acknowledged wryly, the steady consumption of the punch Dani had coerced the caterers into producing might have had something to do with it too.
The chatter near her died away, and she turned to see what had attracted people's attention. Standing in the entrance to the Big Top, clad in a scarlet ringmaster's uniform, her black hair bound neatly in a French plait, stood six foot of stunningly gorgeous woman.
The sight took Alison's breath away, then her muscles unfroze, and she was running, muttering apologies as she elbowed her way between people, attracting curious and amused glances as she flew like an arrow towards her target … who met her with a brilliant smile and wide open arms, then swung her round and round like an excited child, before hugging her so tightly she couldn’t breath.
Alison could feel Summer's heart pounding in her chest, then the hug eased.
"I would kiss you," said Summer huskily, her breath warm on Alison's ear, "but I'm not sure you want me to in front of all these people."
Alison was grateful for her thoughtfulness. It was one thing to come 'out' to her friends, another to give her lover a tongue sandwich in front of everybody … though she was sorely tempted.
"Later," she whispered with a squeeze.
The squeeze was returned. "That's a promise."
Alison stood back and simply looked at Summer for a moment, unable to keep the beaming smile off her face. She grabbed the taller woman's hand, intending to tug her off for the first of many proud introductions, when Summer dug in her heels.
"Wait. I've got someone here you might want to see first."
Alison frowned impatiently. "Oh? Who?"
Summer turned towards the exit and gave a loud whistle. Moments later, a grey-haired woman in an elegant black trouser suit was stepping into the opening.
It can't be …. Alison's vision blurred.
Summer slipped a supportive arm round her.
"That's the first time in a long time anyone has whistled at me," said Miss Pargeter dryly. "But your Summer has quite a way with her, Ali, so I'll let it pass." She stopped directly in front of Alison, who put a hand to her mouth.
"Miss Pargeter! But how?" She turned to a grinning Summer. "But what …? But …."
"She isn’t always this inarticulate," said Summer, giving her a squeeze, "unfortunately."
The banter helped to anchor Alison. "You … you …planned this?"
Summer nodded. "I thought it would make you happy," she said softly. "Was I right?"
Alison felt a tear trickle down her cheek. "Oh, Summer," she said feelingly.
Miss Pargeter regarded the two of them benignly for a moment. Then she stepped forward and removed Alison's arm from a reluctant Summer, capturing her arm triumphantly for herself. "My turn, I think."
Alison felt suddenly unsure of herself, wondering how much Miss Pargeter remembered of their heart-to-hearts at school. They had never openly discussed her being gay, and she had no idea how the older woman might feel about it ….
Something of her insecurity must have shown, because Miss Pargeter said, in a kind voice pitched only for her, "I'm so glad you found someone like Summer to love you, my dear. Now come and tell me all about what you've been doing with your life since I last saw you, and how you two met …."
Breathing a sigh of relief, and feeling more at ease by the minute, Alison proceeded to do just that.
Summer helped herself to a glass of fruit punch, sipped it, and almost did a double take. What's in this stuff? Rocket fuel? She took another sip, strictly to confirm her suspicions, of course. Not bad.
She grabbed a paper plate and started working her way along the trestle table positioned in the centre of the Big Top - as she had suspected, the caterers had supplied far too much food, and there was still plenty left.
"Everything OK, Boss?" came Grigori's voice. "We were expecting you an hour ago."
Summer swallowed the remains of her sausage roll and licked her fingers before turning and replying. "Plane was late," she told her second-in-command succinctly. "Then I got stuck with this idiot drunk driver." She grimaced. "Forced me off the road."
Grigori frowned. "Anyone hurt?"
"No. The van'll need some work, though. The nearside wing and driver's door have got a few extra dents and gouges. Probably need some new tyres too - I left skidmarks all over the road." She helped herself to a vol-au-vent and tried to guess what the filling - something beige - was made of. "Miss Pargeter found it all 'exhilarating'!" she added.
They looked over to where Alison and the older woman now stood surrounded by a gaggle of excited twenty-eight-year-old women who had regressed ten years by the look of them. As though aware of her gaze, Alison turned to look at Summer and rolled her eyes.
"Damn! I should have got them together in the house," muttered Summer, "then they could have talked in peace. Still, Miss P is staying overnight; maybe they'll get another chance to talk before she goes back …."
It would have to be tomorrow though, she decided, eyeing the sleeveless button-front dress Alison was wearing and feeling her fingers itch to undo the buttons one by one, because she had other plans for Alison tonight ….
Jason Donovan was complaining about 'Too Many Broken Hearts' over the sound system, and Summer gritted her teeth. "Hasn't that DJ got any decent music?" She handed her empty glass to Grigori, put down her plate, and began elbowing her way towards the DJ's console.
Registering someone standing in front of him, the ratty little man looked up from his turntables. His eyes widened as he saw the tall ringmaster.
"Er …" He swallowed nervously, his prominent Adam's apple bobbing. "Yes?" He tugged his headphones clear of one ear.
"Do you take requests?"
He shrugged. "If I've got the record in question." He indicated the overflowing record boxes. "They're all from 1989."
I'd forgotten that. Damn! "May I?" She raised an eyebrow.
"Be my guest." He resettled the headphones and busied himself cueing the next record.
Summer dropped into a crouch beside one of the record boxes and began to flick through the record sleeves. Nope. Nope. Definitely not. Nope. You must be joking! Aha! She pulled out a vinyl LP and looked at the track listing. Yes. It was the one she used to have on music-cassette, which went missing after she spring cleaned the caravan one year. Still clutching her prize, she straightened.
The DJ pulled the headphones off his ear again. "Found something?" He took the LP from her, glanced at it, then smiled. "Good taste."
"Can you play that track?" She pointed.
"And can you give me ten minutes … to pick up my dance partner?" She nodded in Alison's direction.
"Um. OK. Yeah."
"Great!" She flashed him one of what Alison called her 'hundred watt' smiles, and left him blinking rather dazedly.
As she made her way across the marquee, through the crowds of people in various stages of intoxication - must be the punch - someone pinched her left buttock so hard she knew she'd have a bruise there tomorrow. She halted at once and glared at the people surrounding her. Most gave her startled and slightly anxious looks in return, some even backed away, but a paunchy looking man in a tux just grinned and looked unbearably smug.
She kicked his legs out from under him, and he sat down so hard she could hear the crunch as his jaws met. Lucky his tongue didn’t get in the way! He stared up at her in outrage and disbelief.
"From now on, keep your hands to yourself," she growled, and continued on her way as though nothing had happened.
The altercation had served to draw attention to her, but she was used to that, what with her height and the scarlet uniform. She ignored the heads turning to watch her progress, intent only on finding Alison.
Green eyes watched her approach, and a welcoming smile lit up the face of the woman she loved..
"Hey," said Summer, coming to a halt. "Dance with me?"
Alison's eyes widened. "To this?" The charity version of 'Ferry 'Cross the Mersey' was playing.
Summer winced. "No!" She glanced back towards the DJ who was, she was pleased to see, still observing her, and signalled. He nodded, and flicked some switches, and the awful song ended mid lyric, to be replaced by the mellifluous tones of Mica Paris.
"No, to this." She reached for her lover, then hesitated at the indecision she saw in Alison's eyes. Dancing to a disco number was one thing, Summer realized belatedly, but slowdancing to Mica Paris crooning something slow and very sexy was another.
"I'm sorry." Summer let her hand drop to her side. "I didn’t think." She tried to suppress her disappointment and stepped back. The movement seemed to jolt Alison into a decision.
"Wait." She covered the gap Summer had opened between them. "I’d love to dance with you, Summer." She took a deep breath then draped her arms round Summer's neck.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Alison glanced at the faces surrounding them, some indifferent, some knowing, and some unmistakably disapproving. "They're big girls now." She shrugged. "If they can't handle it … tough."
Summer's heart almost burst with pride and affection. She rested her hands on Alison's waist, and pulled her closer, letting her actions speak louder than words. They moved to where there was a bit more space, then began to dance.
As they swayed slowly together, Summer inhaled the scent of her lover's perfume and shampoo and skin, and let the feeling of 'rightness' sweep over her.
"Dance the Blues away," instructed Mica and Summer obeyed without hesitation.
Alison gave a contented sigh. "Mmmm. Been wanting to do this all day," she said.
"Sway like we're sailing on the ocean," sang Mica.
Summer hummed along with the music, and Alison snuggled even closer until there was no space between them. So immersed were they in the own little world, when the record ended and Madonna started singing 'Like a Prayer' and broke the mood, they simply stood, still locked in one another's embrace, blinking stupidly at one another.
Then Summer felt Alison's grip tighten. The blonde's gaze, she noticed in concern, was locked on someone behind them and her expression had changed from dreamy contentment to something not far from dread.
"Well," came a sneering voice, unfamiliar to Summer but clearly well known to Alison. "Ain't this sweet!"
CONTINUED IN PART 5