belinda murrell
belinda murrell - author
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book book extractThe Ruby Talisman

The Ruby Talisman

Chapter One – Salut

Tilly pulled the mesh face guard down to protect her face, and limbered her right wrist in a circle nervously, her long, thin fencing foil drawing in the air. She was dressed all in white, with padding to protect her chest and padded gloves on her hands. She jigged up and down, adrenaline surging through her body.

Salut.’

Tilly lifted the foil in front of her face in a formal salute to her opponent on the other side of the mat.

En garde.’

The long, slim foils flashed forward into the defensive position.

Allez.’

The two fencers leapt forward, their right feet lunging forward, foils flashing and slashing. Tilly felt her hot bubbling anger, turn cold and hard as steel. Her mind stilled from its seething thoughts, and became totally focused on the silver weapon surging towards her. She judged her opponent’s body language, scanning for a weakness, a hesitation, a moment’s delay. The two opponents tested each other, lunging and feinting, dancing back and forth, parrying their blades.

Tilly saw her chance and lunged, her foil slipping through the defense and stabbing her opponent’s chest.

Touche,’ yelled the umpire. ‘Retreat.’

Tilly leapt back behind her line, a warm glow of satisfaction surging through her. Her opponent shook her head in frustration, her long black ponytail swinging.

En garde. Allez.’

The two girls fought again, graceful as dancers, gliding across the mat, in an elaborate carefully choreographed series of moves, back and forth. This time her opponent saw the opening and lunged. Too late Tilly tried to parry the thrust, but missed, the foil finding its mark on Tilly’s shoulder.

Stupid. Stupid, thought Tilly, angrily. I should have seen that coming.

Touche,’ called the umpire. ‘Retreat.’

Tilly’s mistake and her anger with herself backfired. She seemed to lose her focus and her rhythm. The next bout was shorter and easily won by her opposition. Tilly bit her lip in frustration and disappointment. She felt like hurling her foil across the room at the peeling wall.

But Jack, her coach, would never tolerate such bad sportsmanship.

Tilly gritted her teeth and shook hands with her opponent.

‘Well done, Tilly,’ congratulated Jack, smiling warmly. ‘It was a close match. You’re really improving. Keep up the good training.’

Jack was two years older than Tilly, and helped teach fencing at the local community hall every Thursday afternoon. He was tall, with short dark hair, green eyes and the narrow frame and graceful movement of an athlete.

Tilly blushed and hunched her shoulders.

‘I lost,’ she muttered, scowling, but secretly she felt warmed by Jack’s praise.

The easy smile dropped from Jack’s face. He stepped away.

‘I know you are having a hard time at the moment, Tilly, but you should try not to be so angry all of the time. It gets so boring.’

Tilly’s heart contracted sharply. She turned away, tears smarting her eyes.

In the changeroom, she pulled on a big, baggy sweater that had belonged to her dad, a pair of old faded jeans and scruffy runners. She carefully packed away her fencing clothes and foil into her kit bag, checking it all carefully. She ignored the other girls chatting and giggling in the corner. They were congratulating Bella, who had just competed against Tilly.

Bella had her long black hair swept up into a ponytail. She looked gorgeous with her deep brown skin, and black eyes. Dressed now in black leggings and top, a purple and black tartan skirt and silver ballet shoes, she looked graceful and confident, surrounded by her friends.

‘Bye Tilly,’ called Bella, cheerfully. ‘You fought well today.’

A hot flush stained Tilly’s cheeks.

‘Thanks,’ Tilly muttered, her eyes glued to the floor, as she loped for the door.

Tilly glanced back to see Bella, raising her eyebrows and shoulders in a ‘what’s up with her?’ gesture to the other girls, who shrugged and tittered in reponse.

At the park on the corner, Tilly sat on a bench, staring at the hole in the toe of her runner and scuffing her heel in the dirt.

Tilly was angry.

The last few months had been the worst in her life. Six months ago she had been a normal girl, with normal friends and a normal family. Then one night, everything had changed. Her dad had come home from work and explained that he had met a woman at work. That he had fallen in love. That he would be moving in with ‘Bunny’ and her children. That he still loved Tilly but he didn’t want to live with her and her mother any more.

Tilly had run up to her room and slammed the door, the anger boiling up like bubbling lava, threatening to boil over. The anger had come like lightning and it had stayed. Tilly was angry with her mother for not doing whatever it took to make her dad stay. Tilly was angry with her brother for being so annoying, that he’d probably driven their dad away. She was angry with her father and his new friend ‘Bunny’, and her horrible children. She was angry with her teachers, her friends and most of all with herself for not being loveable enough.

Tilly’s head ached with the memory of it.

Her younger brother Tim, often went to stay with dad and ‘Bunny’ and the new family, but Tilly refused. She would rather lie on her bed with her ipod turned up high to drown out the world. A tear trickled down Tilly’s face and she wiped it away fiercely with the back of her hand.

Reluctantly she picked up her kit bag and walked home. In the hallway she met her brother Tim in his soccer training gear, zooming a lego spaceship through the air.

‘Mum’s cross,’ announced Tim, as he walked past her, his soccer bootlaces undone.

A wave of annoyance washed over Tilly. Tim was always messy and always in the way.

‘Poor bubba,’ hissed Tilly. ‘Is mumsy cwoss with you? Did you leave lego all over the lounge room floor again?’

A flash of pain crossed Tim’s freckled face, then a mask of nonchalance dropped down.

‘No, she’s cross with you,’ retorted Tim, quickly. ‘Again!’

Tilly’s heart sank. What had she done now?

Tilly’s mother Juliette was in the kitchen, unpacking the dishwasher.

‘Where have you been?’ cried Juliette, her hand on her hip and her face furrowed with anxiety. ‘You were supposed to pick Tim up from the neighbour’s house half an hour ago. She rang me at work, and when I couldn’t find you on the mobile I had to come home early. And you were supposed to unpack the dishwasher before school.’

Tilly threw her bag down on the floor. A flood of guilt washed over her. She had forgotten about Tim, and the dishwasher. She pushed away the guilt and reached for the anger.

‘I..I…I was caught up after fencing. Besides why should I always have to look after Tim? He’s so annoying and never does what I tell him. No-one else has to mind their pesky little brothers. It’s so unfair.’

The headache came pounding back.

‘I don’t want to argue with you, Tilly,’ Juliette sighed. ‘Could you please finish unpacking the dishwasher?’

Tilly shook her head, making a W letter with her two hands. ‘Whatever,’ she mouthed.

Juliette closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, resolutely refusing to answer.

Tilly groaned loudly and stomped around the kitchen, dropping knives in the drawer with a clatter, banging saucepans, and clashing plates. Life was so unfair Tilly thought.

When the dishwasher was emptied, Tilly crept upstairs before Juliette could give her another job. As she tiptoed past her mother’s room she heard a funny sound coming from behind the almost closed door.

It sounded like sobbing. Tilly listened carefully, outside the door.

‘I just can’t do any more, Kara,’ Juliette sniffled. ‘Tilly’s being revolting all the time. I think she hates me….. I know. I know….She’s so angry with me, as if it’s all my fault….But so do I….. All I do is work and clean and cook and wash and help the children. I just feel like my life is a misery…… Yes, but where would I go?..........I couldn’t possibly!...…I know ..It would be wonderful…but the children?... Tilly won’t go to Richard’s. Tim will but…..Would you?.....Are you sure?.........That would be fantastic….Thank you Kara,.I just need to get away from everything and everyone…….

Tilly heard her mother stand up and quickly tiptoed away. What was going on? Was mum going away too? Tilly thought anxiously, her stomach churning.

Nothing more was said until the next morning, when Juliette was making tea, looking pale and drawn, her eyes puffy and dark circles under her eyes.

Tilly looked at her mum closely. She had aged suddenly. There was a thread of grey in her dark hair, which hadn’t been there before, and two deep furrows between her eyes. Had Juliette aged overnight? Or had Tilly simply not noticed?

‘Are you all right, mum?’ Tilly asked. ‘You look tired?’

Juliette smiled gratefully, and rubbed her forehead gingerly. ‘I didn’t sleep very well, last night,’ she admitted. ‘But then, I haven’t been sleeping very well for ages.’

Juliette poured the tea.

‘Actually Tilly, there’s something I need to talk to you about. I’m going away for the weekend. I simply need to get away from everything. Tim is going to stay with your father, but I thought you might prefer to go and stay with Auntie Kara.’

Tilly scowled.

‘But I don’t want to go to..’

‘Please, Tilly,’ interrupted her mother. ‘For once, can you just not argue with me. You have no choice. I’m going away today and you can’t stay here on your own. I know it’s been hard, believe me. But now you just need to grow up a little and realize how your behaviour is affecting everyone else. You just aren’t that nice to be around anymore, Tilly.’

Tilly scowled again, then stormed out of the room, banging the door behind her. Unfair, unfair, she thought. Nothing is right anymore.

‘Kara will pick you up from school,’ Juliette called up the stairs.

That afternoon after school, Tilly dawdled out of the classroom. In the bagroom, she could hear some of the girls chatting and giggling. Last year, these girls had been her friends. When Tilly had first been sad and angry at school, they had been sympathetic and supportive. But gradually over time, they had started to avoid her.

‘Don’t forget your pillows on Saturday night,’ Maddie reminded the other girls. ‘Mum’s going to set up a whole pile of mattresses in the lounge room. She’s making popcorn and pizza to eat in front of the DVD.’

‘I can’t wait,’ Jess exclaimed. ‘And I’ve bought you the most awesome present.’

Tilly’s stomach clenched and her heart beat faster. Maddie was having her birthday sleepover this weekend, and Tilly wasn’t invited. Tilly crept away back into the classroom, pretending to look for her ruler. She waited until she heard the girls race down the stairs still laughing and chatting, before she went to the bagroom, tears stinging her eyes.

By the time she came through the gates, she was one of the last to leave. She saw her aunt’s silver sports car, parked near the gates, the convertible roof folded down. Her aunt was chatting on her mobile phone, her arms gesticulating wildly. Kara saw Tilly and waved frantically.

‘Over here, darling,’ Kara cried. ‘How was school?’

Tilly shrugged non-commitally, hoping her eyes weren’t red. Kara gave her a huge bear hug. Kara scanned her niece’s face, noting the pale, pinched skin, the unkempt brown hair and the puffy eyes.

‘Darling,’ Kara murmured, squeezing Tilly’s hand. ‘We are going to have a lovely weekend, and a little bit of girly spoiling. I haven’t bought your birthday present yet, and I thought we might go shopping tomorrow. It will be such fun. I don’t have a daughter to spoil so I just have to lavish all my attention on you. I haven’t seen you for such a long time.’

Tilly squirmed, picking at the hem of her school skirt.

‘I don’t worry much about clothes,’ Tilly admitted. ‘There doesn’t seem much point somehow.’

‘Why not, Tilly?’ replied Kara gently. ‘It’ll be fun. Come on. Let’s go home.’

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