The Sugar Quill
Author: Allemande  Story: Charlotte's Choice  Chapter: 1 - The madwoman who won our hearts
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We had had a particularly bad start of the year

Author’s Notes: This begged to be written. Literally. It sat there in my head wanting desperately out, so I wrote it, most of it on one day. I hope it gives you a better understanding of Connie’s character, and of Charlotte’s past and decisions – it has certainly done so for me!

 

 

Chapter 1: The madwoman who won our hearts

 

 

We had had a particularly bad start of the year. Three children who, after years and years of searching, had finally been found foster homes in November and December, all came back to us in the first few months of the new year. Explanation: not compatible. I had to say I wasn’t exactly surprised in George Lonston’s case, since he had always been a stubborn and disobedient kid - which was why his return added to our worries. And Henrietta Enderleigh’s foster parents had seemed odd to me from the first day, though I'd never been able to nail it down to anything particular; and – I'm ashamed to admit – convinced myself that it was just personal dislike from my side.

 

But Kate? Shy, sweet, attentive little Kate? What was wrong with her? The Carltons would not give us a more concrete answer, so we were left wondering what had gone wrong. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me that it had been Kate’s fault; and while I told myself that, obviously, there must be something wrong with the Carltons, and that it was better for Kate not to have grown up with such a screwed up family, it still wasn’t easy hearing her crying herself to sleep every night.

 

So, again, our number was up to thirty-two. It had seemed like an achievement – if only symbolic – to finally have reached a number below thirty. Now, naturally, our morale wasn't very high. The return of George, Henrietta and Kate seemed to lie like a bad omen over the whole year that had only just started. And the children were similarly discouraged.

 

Steve had given us all a talking-to two weeks before. I loved Steve. I had loved him ever since I had started working at the children’s home, and everybody besides him knew. Even the kids knew. It was so embarrassing whenever one of them, unaware of the effect, made a casual remark referring to my obvious distraction whenever we were in the same room. But Steve had to be the slowest, thickest guy I had ever met; I was positive he had no clue at all, and I had never been the kind of person to openly show my feelings.

 

But while he was the most clueless man I knew, he was also the most caring and active. He had been director of the children's home for the last six years, and had done all the fundraising himself – grants were few and far between from the council. One of the things I liked most about him was the fact that he had given up a successful career as an engineer to work for the Plymouth Children’s Home, despite the low pay and long hours that care workers had. That man...

 

Ahem. As I was saying. Steve had given us a talking-to, thanking us all for our perseverance, and asking us not to be demotivated by this turn of events. Doubtless this speech also had to do with Oliver’s sudden departure at the end of January.

 

"Okay, so we’re back to where we started,“ Steve had said, pacing through the room. "It’s Connie, Mark, me, and Dorothy on weekends. We’ve managed before, haven’t we? And we’ve got Leticia now. Admittedly there are slightly more kids than there were six years ago. But hey, where’s the difference between sixteen and thirty-two?“ He had grinned, knowing full well that our situation was much worse than it had been, and not caring one bit. God, how I loved this man. And he had said my name first.

 

But things didn’t improve as the year progressed. Leticia, a care worker who had joined us in December, returned to Barcelona in April. The strain had been too much for her, she had been too delicate. Secretly, very secretly, I wasn’t too sorry. She was whiny and ineffective, and moreover, she was very pretty.

 

However, we were really getting desperate. We were just three people now, three people for thirty-two insecure, bitter kids. Dorothy had a full-time job as a dentist, she lived in Oxford – and she was pregnant, so she would soon have no time at all. It felt as if we had been putting up advertisements all over Britain, even all over Europe, looking for care workers and for cooks to support Teresa, but the pay was bad – have I mentioned how bad the pay was? The council granted the children's home just enough funds to cover all expenses and give the children a comfortable home, but they didn't seem to think that the job we did was very difficult.

 

On a particularly depressing Saturday at the end of April, I was just setting out the dishes for dinner, thinking darkly about the snobbish family I had visited in the morning, and about George’s latest prank on poor unsuspecting Dave, when there was a knock on the door. I made my way to the tiny entrance hall, expecting someone from the government, a reporter, or – worse – a new arrival, and pulled the door open.

 

The woman standing in front of me was slightly taller than me, with blond curls, a nice smile, and – yes, that was a poncho.

 

Where did she pop out from, I thought, and said, "Can I help you?“

 

"Charlotte Merlot,“ she said, and I instantly liked her voice. "I read the job advertisement, and I’m interested in working here. I was in the area so I thought I would come round and see what it was like.“

 

"Of course, come in,“ I said, beckoning her in and cursing myself for my closed tone. She had an odd name, but her accent didn’t sound foreign, so there was no excuse for her attire other than that she was a bit eccentric. Great.

 

I led her into the dining room and continued setting out the dishes, which she offered help with instantly. I had never belonged to the proud sort.

 

"The director will be here in a minute,“ I said, as I was handing her forks and knives, "as will everyone else. Have you got experience with childcare?“

 

"Just one year of teaching in the US,“ she said. "And I used to babysit my niece when I was young. But I’ve always known that I was meant to work with children.“

 

I smiled. Never judge people by their appearance, Connie. This woman is what we’ve been looking for. Now, don’t mention the money aspect just yet...

 

"Well, we’re desperately short on carers,“ I said instead. "We’re three and a half, so to speak, and thirty-two children; so a new addition would be more than welcome. Are you looking for full-time?“

 

She agreed. I studied her; she looked very young. Probably just out of university, I thought. Seven or eight years younger than me, I guessed. Young and enthusiastic, and I realized she looked much like I had when I had been her age. She had a very open face, and her eyes seemed to be everywhere. She, too, was studying me interestedly.

 

"I’m Constance Jennings, by the way,“ I said, realizing in the awkward silence that I hadn’t introduced myself. We shook hands, Charlotte Merlot smiled again. There had to be some sort of catch to this, I thought.

 

"I’m not quite sure what Mark put on the adverts,“ I continued. "Do you realize that this is a children’s home for physically disabled children?“

 

To my relief, she nodded, not looking scared at all. So now there was only the money aspect to be frightened of. But to my utter surprise, she brought it up herself.

 

"In case you’re wondering,“ she said, smiling at me mischievously, "I also realize that this sort of children’s home is never well funded. I’m not looking for a well-paid job. I’m looking for a job where I can help people, and this seems the ideal place.“ She grinned. "If all of the staff are as nice as you.“

 

I grinned back, relief now flooding over me in big waves. Thank you, God, wherever you’ve been lately. "I certainly think they are. Please excuse me for my wariness, it’s a habit you will take when you’ve worked in this field for as long as I have.“

 

She cocked her head and smiled, as if to say: Just you wait till I’ve filled the children’s home with a bit of young spirit. At any rate I hoped that that was what she was thinking, since we could all do with a bit of new hope and energy. If anyone were to bring that, it would be her, I thought irrationally – I had known her for ten minutes, but somehow I felt I had never met anyone so idealistic, so enthusiastic, so active. Nice change to Señorita Leticia, in any case.

 

A month later I still couldn’t believe our luck. Charlotte Merlot had moved into the children’s home – or rather, invaded it. Never before had our children trusted somebody as quickly as they trusted her, and (not to brag or anything) that was saying something with me alongside her, whom they all called Auntie Connie. Steve and Mark also got along with Charlotte extremely well, even though Mark had initially been slightly sour that much of the children’s attentions were now focused on her – he had always been Attention Whore and Drama Queen in one. However, Steve‘s and my worries about two extroverted and dominant characters clashing soon disappeared. After Charlotte had made some efforts to ask for Mark’s advice here and there, and put emphasis on the fact that she didn’t know half as much as he did, he suddenly declared that he 'luuuurved‘ the woman.

 

Charlotte’s enthusiasm, as I had hoped, gave us all new energy, and we suddenly saw new possibilities and new paths open up in front of us that we had thought were lost. Charlotte seemed to fly around the country, finding foster parents here, finding sponsors there, giving press interviews, finding a new cook... The woman was energy in its concentrated form. However, sometimes I wondered how she managed to get so quickly from one place to another – interview with The Sun in London, talk with the Martins in Edinburgh, and she was back in Plymouth for afternoon tea? Whenever I asked, she said that she had been using the 'aeroplane‘, so possibly her parents had given her a lot of money to live on. But that inability to use normal words, and her speed in getting around the country, just added up to a lot of other oddities I soon noticed about Charlotte Merlot.

 

For example, the woman couldn’t cook. At all. And I don’t mean that she wasn’t very talented for it – she just had absolutely no clue about basic procedures, like cooking potatoes, making sauces or even boiling water in a kettle. When I asked how she had got along until now, she smiled sheepishly and claimed that she absolutely lacked talent for all practical things, but I didn’t believe one word. And I thought that her other excuse about having grown up in France was rubbish, too. Or was she going to tell me that the French just went to restaurants all the time, and the French cooks learned to cook in England? (Now that would have been sad...)

 

No, there was something fishy about her past. I suspected that her parents had never so much as let her move a finger while she had lived with them – but then, how had she survived during that one year in the US? And that was another weird thing. When asked what kind of school she had taught at, she said it had been a private school in Massachusetts, and changed the subject.

 

Another thing. Her sense of fashion was extremely odd. She kept coming down to breakfast dressed in things that just didn’t fit together, like, one day, a large yellow skirt and a purple jacket. I’d attributed that to eccentricity at first, but she didn’t even seem to know that what she wore was unusual. (Or is that normal for eccentrics?)

 

And there were other things, like her being unfamiliar with money – well, it was her first time in Britain after all, but when one of the kids asked her to show them some Francs, she claimed she didn’t have any with her, and never brought it up again. And she wasn’t familiar with the public transport system, with financial issues, even with popular music, literature... It all tied in with my theory of her parents having isolated and spoilt her rotten. She just seemed to have no clue at all about the real world.

 

Still, she learned quickly, and also seemed to get my hint about her clothing (I wouldn’t have said anything, but I just didn’t want her representing the children’s home in odd clothes); and within a few months, she had almost developed into a normal person.

 

About five months after Charlotte had joined us, another, much more pleasant Saturday, we were all sitting outside in the sun, watching the other children play in our small garden, when suddenly little Kate shrieked: "It’s Dorothy!“

 

And sure enough, it was Dorothy coming around the corner, holding her baby in her arms and grinning at everyone. Mark jumped to his feet at once, whether to stop the children from jumping on the young mother, or whether to reach her first, I didn’t know. In any case, he gave her as exhuberant a hug as he could without squeezing the baby to death, and exclaimed: "Oh, she’s lovely, dear!“

 

We all stood up, grinning, hugged Dorothy and gave her our best wishes. She sat down with us for tea, and the children, suddenly uninterested in playing, grouped themselves around her and bombarded her with questions about the baby.

 

"Her name is Hermione,“ Dorothy said, beaming, "and she’s very smart. She doesn’t cry very much at all, and she’s really curious, look how she’s eyeing all of you! I bet she’s going to be a scientist or something.“

 

"She’s adorable,“ said Steve, and my heart jumped. Oh, don’t be silly, Connie, you know he likes kids. Why would you be close to fainting over him admiring a new-born?

 

Later, when the kids had – very reluctantly – gone to bed, Dorothy stayed around for a cup of tea. We exchanged all of our news during the last few months, and Dorothy seemed very happy to hear of the upturn our children’s home had seen lately. She was just in lively conversation with Charlotte when it happened – and it happened so fast that, afterwards, none of us was sure what they had seen. Hermione, who had been fixing Charlotte with her interested stare, dropped the dummy she had been holding in one tiny fist. She gave one loud wail, and Dorothy was just bending down to pick it up, when it was suddenly in Hermione’s hand again.

 

"Blimey, what was that?“ exclaimed Mark. "Did you guys see that?“

 

We shook our heads disbelievingly and blinked. "It must have bounced off the floor right into her hand again,“ I offered, not very convincingly. I looked around. Everyone was looking stunned, but nobody as much as Charlotte, who was fixing the child with a mixture of astonishment and excitement. When she noticed my look, however, she smiled and shrugged. But I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that she had a different explanation.

 

I had completely forgotten about this when it was recalled to me in the most peculiar fashion, months later. It was the first of November, and we were still busy cleaning up the remnants of the Halloween feast the night before – always a highlight for the kids.

 

Charlotte had left the feast abruptly the night before. A letter had somehow found its way to her – how, we didn’t know, since it was Saturday night – and she explained that it was an urgent letter from her parents and that she would be back the next day. She had seemed very excited, which was strange considering the many comments she had dropped about not getting along with her parents spectacularly well.

 

I was in the dining room with Steve, rearranging the tables and chairs, as we always did since this also served as our common room. We didn’t talk much. This was also normal. Either he didn’t have much to say to me, or he was always distracted, or he had finally got wind of my attraction. As for me, I would have had a lot of things to say to him. But as it is, I was and I am not an extroverted person.

 

As I was just battling with myself what would be the best way to start a conversation, and when I would finally make Steve see that I saw much more than just a colleague in him, Charlotte came bounding into the room.

 

"There you are,“ I said, relieved that the silence was broken on the one hand, disappointed that I had missed my chance on the other. "Good news from home?“

 

She was positively beaming. Was her brother getting married, I thought stupidly. But she was holding a newspaper in her hands, unfolded it and began to read out loud.

 

"The Prime Minister announced today that the person who has been responsible for the disappearances and murders reported during the last years has finally been caught. The man, whose identity still hasn‘t been revealed, was killed last night in the attempt of fleeing from police, says the Prime Minister’s spokesman, John Hensley.“

 

Charlotte looked up at us, still beaming.

 

"That’s great,“ said Steve. "Those disappearances were getting really scary, and it didn’t seem like the police were doing anything, not least informing the people.“

 

"Great?" asked Charlotte incredulously. "It’s wonderful! Oh, never mind –“, and for some reason, she seemed to dismiss her own comment with a wave of her hand. "I know people whose relatives went missing, that’s why I’m so thrilled this person has finally been caught.“

 

"Oh, I see,“ I said. "And were their relatives found again?“

 

"Oh, no.“ Charlotte was suddenly looking very bitter. "He never held anyone hostage.“

 

There it was again. That unmistakeable feeling that Charlotte knew much more than I did. I studied her intently, but she seemed to have closed the subject, and moved to help us with the tables.

 

Life in the children’s home continued to blossom. Charlotte had found foster parents for six children by December, and Christmas was suddenly much less crowded than usual. Kate finally lived with very caring parents, which made us all very happy, but we would miss her especially around this time of year – the girl had the most angelic voice.

 

It was at the dinner table on Christmas Eve that the owl arrived. I had just opened a window because the air was so sticky, when the owl came swooping through it, landed on the table right in front of Charlotte, and stuck out its leg, which had a thin roll of parchment attached to it.

 

There had never been such a profound silence in the room. We stared from Charlotte to the owl and back to Charlotte again, who was looking very embarrassed. Not surprised, I noticed. Embarrassed and uncomfortable.

 

Everyone had stopped eating. George Lonston, in the seat opposite me, had a spoonful of plumpudding raised halfway to his mouth, and the spoon’s contents suddenly fell on his plate with a loud PLOP, breaking the silence. This seemed to stir Charlotte into action, who raised her hand and carefully took the piece of parchment off the owl’s leg. The owl, seemingly having waited for nothing else, gave a hoot and took off through the window again.

 

Charlotte looked at us all, an undefinable expression on her face. Then she unrolled the parchment and read what was on it.

 

As abruptly as the owl had left, she rose, and looking at us all, said, "I have to leave for the US. I’m sorry, I’ll explain later, it’s very urgent.“ And without another word, she rushed out.

 

Two weeks into February, we got a letter from her (delivered in the normal way). Steve read it out to all of us at breakfast.

 

"Dear Steve, Connie, Mark and Dorothy, dear children,

 

I must apologize to you for leaving so quickly at Christmas, and for not writing to you sooner. Please don’t think that I haven’t missed you all greatly. I’ll try to explain what happened.

 

On Christmas Eve, a friend in Salem wrote to me, asking me to come and see her immediately, because her brother and his wife had been in an accident. It was a good thing I came, because when I arrived, she was in tears. Her brother and his wife haven’t got better,  so I stayed with her at first, trying to make sure that she was all right.

 

Then a friend of hers came to Salem and stayed with us. He’s from Colombia, and his work is quite similar to ours. This is where the bad news comes in, and this is where it gets very hard for me to explain...

 

I went with him to Colombia to study the situation he had described to me, and I saw things there... I saw things I would never have thought possible, and I saw children whose situation is much, much worse than anything we could imagine. These children need my help.

 

This is why I cannot come back to Plymouth. Although it pains me greatly, I’ve realized what I’m in this world for, if that makes sense.

 

Thank you all for this past year – I have enjoyed being with you all very, very much, and I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Remember – always hold your heads up high and don’t give up!

 

Love from

 

Charlotte.“

//
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