I cannot tell you what woke me that night. I know that it was not a loud noise. One wakes up differently to a loud noise. Perhaps it was just the soft sssh of an elderly slippered foot on soft, well worn stair carpet. Or perhaps a soft groan had escaped the tired old woman’s tightly pressed lips as she mounted to the landing where I huddled in an overstuffed chair under the glow of the only light that was ever left on after 10:00pm.

I had been reading. I often spent a few hours, in the quiet of the night, reading under that ancient lamp. It was the best time of the day — I could be alone. ‘Alone time’ was precious in that great country house with its dozens of orphaned children. Days were spent in schooling and the furious dashing about common to children who simply must live an entire lifetime in each monent. Loud, incessant noise accompanied every second of our waking day. Until bed-time. Then the noise eased off, quieted, and the house was still.

The old matron who had night duty seldom came upstairs these days. She had become more frail with age and the long curving stairway from the high-ceilinged, oak panelled, great hall below was a test of her will now that her strength was leaving her. I saw her glance my way and note my presence. I pretended sleep and watched her through slitted eyes as she paused for breath then moved on silent feet across the landing towards the room that I normally occupied along with the two other eldest children.

I was twelve years old. The other two, Jon and Marion, were fifteen and thirteen respectively. We three had all come to the orphanage on the same day four years ago. All of us brought by our “guardians” after the sudden death of our parents from the flu that had made serious inroads into the population of the cities that year.

We had shared a room ever since. Sometimes there was a fourth person in with us but mostly it was just us three. We each had our own bed but we often shared a bed with one or both of the other two. The nuns who ran the orphanage called it “comforting” each other and did not become overly concerned when we or the other children did it.

As time went on and the children, all initially between the age of six and fourteen, got older, the nuns would move the children from room to room if they noticed any too strong attraction between any of the children in their care.

They had tried to separate us a number of times. For myself, it would have been alright. I didn’t mind being with the other children sometimes. For Jon and Marion it was disaster. One would seek out the other and slip into bed with them no matter where they’d been moved to.

Last year when Jon had turned fifteen the nuns had, as was their custom, turned him out into the world. It didn’t work. Unless locked up, Marion would open a door or window every night to let Jon in. The morning would find them snuggled up comfortably together again. The nuns suspected that their relationship went far deeper than merely ‘comforting’ each other, but they’d never caught them doing anything out of order.

Eventually the nuns accepted Jon’s continued presence and assigned him a room with Marion and me again.

I, of course, knew that they two were engaged in “adult comforting” as we called it. They could hardly have kept me in the dark, since I shared a room with them. Yet they had never even tried to do so. In fact, when we were all younger, we had, together, all played those exploratory games that children always play. As time went on and they grew closer and closer, I was left out of their ‘games’. I did not mind this for I had other children my own age to play with. I kept their secret faithfully despite the hard questioning looks of the nuns at times. Never had the nuns come sneaking around spying on them though. That wasn’t their style.

Seeing the old matron move toward our bedroom door, I had a premonition that there were about to be some drastic changes to things for Jon and Marion. I had expected something of the kind because tomorrow was Marion’s birthday — her fourteenth. If the nuns allowed her to stay on, it would be the first time they’d ever done so. The boy children went out at fifteen — the girl children went out at fourteen. The boys were expected to make their own way in life — the girls were sent “into service” as trainee maids and other house staff of the wealthy.

Usually as a girl approached fourteen there were great flurries of activity as she was dressed up in her best and interviewed by ‘Lords and Ladies’, as we called them, for a “position” in their households. This had not happened for Marion. I had wondered at this in passing but had not really given it much thought.

Slowly, quietly, the old matron pushed open the heavy, solid door. It had not opened even an inch when I heard the sounds from inside. Jon and Marion were ‘comforting’.

The matron watched for a moment, her face showing no emotion at all. Then a small wet tear trickled down her cheek and she silently pulled the door closed and leaned her forehead upon it. She stayed like that for some time then opened the door again. All was silent. Glancing over her shoulder toward me, as if to be certain that I still slept, the matron moved into the room and closed the door behind her. Knowing that I’d hear nothing through that thick door, I stayed where I was, ready to continue playing at being asleep.

In a short time the door opened again. I could see Jon and Marion, dressed in their best, standing, facing each other, looking into each other’s eyes. Matron, behind them, was closing a large grip. I knew at once that they were leaving the orphanage. I longed to call out to them; to run to them and hug them into staying, but somehow I knew that it wouldn’t happen that way.

Matron, finishing with the grip, grunted softly to let them know all was ready. Marion put up her two hands to the sides of Jon’s face. Looking deeply into his eyes, she tilted his head forward and lightly kissed him on the nose. Pushing his head back a fraction, she then kissed him on the lips. A chaste kiss but a loving one nonetheless. Then she kissed his chin. This seemed to me the most intimate kiss of all for all its innocence, for her lips lingered on his soft skin as though she were tasting him as a bee tastes a drop of nectar, delighting in the taste and drawing sustenance from it.

She turned to the matron and nodded. Matron led the way to the stairs; they followed. I watched, wanting more than anything to leap up and shout “No! You cannot go!” Yet I stayed quiet in my pretence of sleep. I saw Marion look my way and felt her stop and look at Jon. Then both came to me. She shook me ‘awake’ and as I opened my eyes, whispered softly, “We have to go now. It is our time.”

My eyes, starting to overflow with tears of loneliness already, I looked up at them in misery. I would miss them greatly. “Are you going to stay together”, I whispered?

“Yes, oh yes, of course”, answered Jon. “Always”, added Marion, “we’re going to be married.” Somehow this made it better and my eyes dried up a little. Marion leaned forward and kissed me softly on the lips. She startled me when I felt her tongue-tip slip into my mouth and touch my own tongue before quickly withdrawing. It had been years since she had kissed me like that; not since we were very young and “practice kissing”.

Then Jon leaned in and also kissed me. Like Marion he too kissed me on the lips and like Marion he slipped his tongue between my lips and touched my tongue with its tip. His tongue too withdrew quickly. Then they were turning away, hand in hand, and going down that grand staircase for the last time. I sat stunned, watching them go. Somehow I knew that they would indeed always be together. They were — always had been — meant for each other.

I heard the murmured voices of the nuns as they said their good-byes at the foot of the stairs. Then the great door opened and closed and they were gone. I moved over to the top of the stairs and sat looking down the grand staircase and across the enormous hall at that massive oaken door. The nuns, unaware of my presence, continued chatting.

“A lovely couple”, longing in her voice. “Will they be married soon?”

“Oh yes. This very morning”.

“Did you give her the papers” asked another?

“Yes, she’s Marion White now”.

“Not for long”, chimed in another. “She’ll soon have her family name back. The marriage will take care of that.”

“Do you think we did the right thing”, a worried voice?

“We had no choice. They were going to be together no matter what we did or didn’t do. Tis better they be properly married and have papers to prove it.”

“Ahhh yes”, sighed one, “but if anyone should ever find out that we helped brother to marry sister, we’d be in terrible trouble.”

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