A small, white-haired, nattily attired woman descended the main staircase of an elegant home, pausing at the landing to smile at the young couple who waited, expectantly, in the foyer. Clearing her throat, she intoned, "It is my pleasure to announce Her Royal Highness, Jamie, Princess of the Town of Hillsborough." The couple turned their gazes towards the top of the stairs, both gasping in delight when the princess appeared.
A vision of loveliness, the small girl met her parents eyes and waited a beat, as had been scripted, before starting to descend. Even though she was just 6 years old, her gait exhibited a surprising level of poise and grace as she glided smoothly down the staircase.
The child was dressed in a sky blue satin gown, custom made for the occasion. Two underskirts, made of crinoline, made the full skirt drape attractively around her small body. Multicolored ribbons were woven into the puffy sleeves of the dress, and a similarly woven sash encircled her small waist.
A golden cardboard crown rested upon her golden hair, the crown bedecked with large, precious gems made of the finest glass.
When she reached the last stair, she paused once again, and looked at her parents, her expression somber and controlled. "Your Highnesses," she said, bowing to acknowledge them formally.
Catherine Evans shot a puzzled look at the childs nanny, asking, "Your Highnesses?"
Elizabeth nodded, her hands primly folded in front of her, and explained in her proper English accent. "I provided a bit of background in primogeniture to the child. She knows that in order for her to be a princess of the realm, one of her parents has to be the king or the queen. So, for today, you are the Queen of Hillsborough, Mrs. Evans." A small smile graced her face and she added, "The titles merely ceremonial. You wont be called on to issue any royal edicts."
"Oh, I dont know, Elizabeth." Jim Evans, a tall, handsome, blond man gave her a smile. "I can think of quite a few things Id do in this town if I were king. Maybe I should issue a proclamation and see if people start obeying me."
She chuckled softly, giving him a seldom-seen, near-girlish smile. "Oh, Mr. Evans, Im sure the town would be well run under your reign."
The little girl fidgeted, her patience for pomp and circumstance at an end. "Is Poppa gonna be here soon?" she asked.
"He should be here in a few minutes, honey," her mother assured her. "And remember, dear, you should say going to." Catherine waited patiently, giving her daughter an expectant smile.
"Is Poppa going to be here soon?" she tried again.
"Yes, dear. He had a wedding to perform this morning, but he said hed be here by noon." Squatting down to the childs level, she asked, "Are you excited about going to the party?"
Grass-green eyes lit up with excitement as the child nodded vigorously, nearly displacing her crown. "Poppa said we can go on the carousel," she enthused. "And there will be other kids for me to play with."
Her smile turning into a stern frown, Elizabeth warned, "Now, you remember what we talked about, Jamie. Your dress is a very dear creation, and you have to take very good care of it. This is the kind of thing that youll want to save for your own daughter to wear one day."
The little girl looked at her and blinked slowly, her eyes narrowing a bit, but not saying a word.
"Do you understand?" the nanny insisted.
"I have to stay clean," the child mumbled, staring at the floor.
Catherine squatted down again and said, "Dont worry about that, dear. We want you to have fun."
The sober green eyes rotated in her mothers direction, then swiftly shifted back to her nanny. The older woman shook her head and said, "She can have a perfectly wonderful time without ruining her dress, Mrs. Evans. Im certain that some of the children attending this affair wont have proper supervision. A good number of them are quite rambunctious not the sort of child that Jamie should associate with." She began to scowl, saying, "Perhaps I should accompany Reverend Evans, just to be safe."
The little girl looked like she was on the verge of tears as her small shoulders slumped, and she went into the living room to sit listlessly in one of the upholstered chairs. To her complete amazement, she heard her mother say, "No, that wont be necessary, Elizabeth. Jamie needs to spend time alone with her grandfather. Its best for both of them."
Looking at her with some degree of shock, the nanny warned, "Mark my words, Mrs. Evans. Dont be surprised if her gown is completely ruined by the time she returns home. You wont be able to take her out to trick-or-treat on Halloween like youd planned."
"If she ruins her dress, well just get her something else to wear on Wednesday," Catherine said, showing, what was for her, a remarkable display of backbone. "I only wanted to take her to see a few of my friends, anyway. Her dress isnt vital."
"Well! If you dont mind showing her off in a cheap, likely flammable get-up from the discount store, that will be just fine," Elizabeth snapped, her cheeks flushing pink. "I think Ill be on my way now, if you dont need anything further."
"No, thats fine, Elizabeth," Jim said, giving his wife a puzzled look. "We appreciate all that youve done to make Jamie look so fantastic."
"Thats my job," she said, sniffing a bit. "Ill be off." She picked up her purse and her keys, then turned and said, "Have a lovely time, Jamie." With a quick nod to her employers, she marched out through the front door, closing the heavy portal with a soft click.
"What brought that on?" Jim asked quietly, leading his wife down the hall towards the library so theyd have some privacy. "Ive never heard you stand up to her like that."
"Did you see the look in Jamies eyes?" she whispered. "She looked like she was about to cry. Id like her to be able to have fun today, instead of being so concerned with what shes wearing. Shes a little girl, not a fashion model."
"I agree, Cat, but you know how Elizabeth is when she thinks youre undermining her. Youd better apologize."
She sighed deeply, then met her husbands eyes. "I will. And even at that, shell punish me for a week." Rolling her eyes, she said, "Im 26 years old, and my childs nanny practically takes me over her knee when I displease her. If I didnt think it would cause more problems than it would solve, Id send her back to England."
"And do what?" he laughed softly. "Raise Jamie without any help?"
His dismissive tone made her shudder, and her shoulders slumped in an exact duplication of her daughters gesture of a few minutes earlier. "I suppose not," she said quietly. "Ill apologize and take my medicine."
"Good girl," he smiled, patting her on the shoulder. "Its easier this way, Cat. Trust me."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Jamie sat in the chair for a few more minutes, her little heart thumping with anticipation. She was excited enough about the Halloween party, and the prospect of going on the carousel, but the thought of spending the whole afternoon with her grandfather was making her giddy.
She and her grandfather saw each other often. After mass on Sunday, the older man usually joined them for brunch at the club; and he often came down on Saturday afternoons to take his only granddaughter to a local playground. But invariably, Elizabeth tagged along on those outings, making them lose all of their cachet. But today it would be just the two of them.
Her feet dangled off the floor as she sat in the tall chair, and she idly swung them back and forth as she thought, I think Elizabeths really mad at Mother. I hope she doesnt get in too much trouble. She pondered the events of the past few minutes, finding herself completely puzzled by her mothers behavior. Elizabeths word was law around the house, of that, she was sure. Having her mother stand up to the older woman was at once thrilling and frightening, and Jamie found herself quite unsettled as she waited for the doorbell to ring.
Moments later, the bell did, indeed, ring, and the child ran to answer it. Yanking open the heavy door took all of her strength, and she beamed up at the man who smiled down at her. "What a beautiful fairytale princess!" he exclaimed dramatically. "What is your name, Your Highness?"
When she extended her small arms, the man bent to lift her into his embrace. "Im Jamie, Poppa!" she cried, giggling wildly.
"No! Dont tell me this beautiful maiden is my little Jamie!"
"Its me!" she insisted. "Did you think I was the princess?"
He hugged her tightly, kissing her on both cheeks. "Youre the most beautiful princess who ever lived," he said, exchanging a warm smile with his watching son and daughter-in-law.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Jamie was ready to go, but Charles spent a moment filling her parents in on their itinerary. "Now, the big Halloween festival is going to be held right next to the childrens playground in Golden Gate Park," he explained. "They have games and story-time and the usual things for small kids. If there isnt enough to keep her entertained, we can play in the playground."
"Can we go on the carousel, Poppa?" she asked, her eyes wide.
"As many times as you want," he promised. "Well have fun today, Jamie."
Turning back to his daughter-in-law, Charles asked, "Will it be just the two of us, today? I had a feeling that Elizabeth " He trailed off, only to be enlightened by his granddaughter.
"Mother got in trouble cause she told Elizabeth she didnt care if I got dirty," she said in a very loud stage whisper. "Elizabeth left, and I think shes mad."
"Jamie," Catherine said, adding an embarrassed laugh, "I did not get in trouble. Remember, Im the queen. And, by the way, the correct word is because, not cause."
The little girl hopped off her chair and walked over to give the older woman a robust hug. "Thank you, Mother," she said, squeezing her tightly. "I really want to be with Poppa. Just Poppa," she emphasized.
Smoothing blonde hair into place underneath the crown, Catherine smiled at her daughter fondly and said, "I know you do, sweetheart. Well try to make sure you have time alone with your Poppa more often."
"Youll keep a close eye on her, wont you, Dad?" Jim asked. "Shes not used to being in a big crowd."
"Well be fine," his father insisted. "The princess will never be out of my sight."
* * * * * * * * * * *
The park was packed with kids and their parents, but eventually, Charles Evans guided his young charge to the party. "What would you like to do first, honey?"
"Could we go on the carousel?" she asked, a hopeful look in her eyes.
"Sure. Lets go right now."
They made their way over to the elaborate, beautifully carved antique carousel, Jamie gazing at it with wide eyes. "Its beautiful," she gasped. "Look at the horses!"
"Do they look like the horses that you get to ride, honey?" he teased.
"No, Poppa. I just ride on ponies. I have to be taller to ride on the big horses. Elizabeth says maybe when Im in fourth grade." Looking up at him wistfully, she said, "Thats a long time away."
"Well, you can ride on these big horses," he smiled. "Do you want me to ride with you, or just wave to you?"
She looked at him for a moment, trying to decide if he was serious. "I could go alone?" she asked dubiously.
"Sure, if you want to. I can stay right here and wave to you. Would you like that?"
"You wont go away?"
"No, of course not, sweetheart. Ill stay right here."
"Okay." She took a step, then turned back to him. "You sure?"
"Im positive. Heres your ticket, honey. Have fun, now."
"Okay." She got in line with the other kids, while Charles stood right behind the fence, keeping his eyes on her the whole time. One man stood at the entrance, taking tickets, while another kept his eye on maintaining order and ensuring safety. The attendant helped Jamie atop one of the prettiest horses, and the child sat upon her mount so proudly that Charles felt a few tears sting his eyes. He watched her like a hawk, smiling and waving when she passed by him for the first time.
The carousel was housed in a turn-of-the-century Greek revival temple, with the sides of the building open. As they made their first revolution, a dark figure lurking in the very corner of the space caught Jamies eye, and before she could blink, the figure leapt the short fence, grabbed onto one of the gold-toned poles, then stuck a booted foot into the stirrup of the horse right next to Jamies, with a long leg swinging up to gracefully slide over the saddle. The child was sitting in a perfectly composed position by the time they passed the attendant, although his eyes narrowed a bit when they whirled past.
Jamie was staring at the figure in open-mouthed astonishment. The idea of jumping aboard the carousel was so alien to her that she could barely process the thoughts running through her mind. But finally, her mouth caught up with her brain and she gasped, "You cant jump on the horse like that!"
The child turned and gave the princess a puzzled look, her lips curling into a lopsided grin. "I can, too. Im the queen," she declared.
"Queen?" Blonde eyebrows nearly rose to her crown. "Youre not even a girl!"
"Ha!" The child rose up in her stirrups, her body so long and slim that it looked to Jamie like she could touch the top of the carousel if she chose to. Drawing one of her well-made, wooden swords from her sash, she waved it in the air with élan. "Im Gráinne OMalley, the pirate queen of Connemara!"
"Who?" Jamie asked, understanding neither the childs accent nor her words.
The queen rolled her eyes and said, "Im Gráinne OMalley. The terror of the Irish Sea." She crossed her arms over her chest, and stuck her chin out defiantly.
Jamie took a moment to reassess her initial impressions. The pirate was so tall that she hardly looked like a child, but she had a soft, rather high voice, which puzzled Jamie completely. A bright red bandana tied over her head obscured most of her hair, but a few strands of jet-black bangs peeked out of the front of the head covering. A blousy, open collared, white shirt was tucked into knee-length black pants that billowed around her thighs, and a bright red sash hung low on her slim waist, a wooden sword hanging over each hip. Shin-high, black, rain boots covered her remarkably large feet, the rubber boots looking a bit incongruous to the princess. But she didnt dare make fun of the older child. There was something about her that commanded attention, and the younger girl gladly gave her every bit of respect her regal bearing dictated.
"Are you sure youre a girl?" Jamie asked once again. "Ive never seen a girl who looks like you."
"Have you been to Ireland?" the child asked, crossing her arms over her chest in a rather disdainful manner as the thick Irish accent tumbled from her lips.
"No," she tentatively allowed, not having any idea what Ireland was, or where it was located.
"All of the girls in Ireland look like me," she assured her. "Were tall, and dark and very, very fierce. Its a hard land, with a hard people." Her voice dropped as she finished her statement, her astonishingly blue eyes boring into Jamie like lasers.
"How did you get here?" Jamie asked, believing every word the child spoke.
"On my boat," she declared. "I sailed over with my crew." Waving a hand dismissively, she announced, "Theyre around here, somewhere."
"Youre not with your mother and father?" she asked, eyes wide.
"Pirates dont have mothers and fathers," she scoffed. "I belong to the sea."
"How old are you?" Jamie asked.
The child paused, no one ever having asked that question of the pirate queen. Not having a ready answer at disposal, she told the truth. "9. Well, 9 on Tuesday," she added. "Thats my birthday. Im getting a new skateboard." She looked like she wanted to pull the last sentence back in, but the princess had already picked up on her gaffe.
The intent green eyes narrowed. "A pirate queen rides a skateboard?"
"Of course," she said, thinking fast. "The deck of my ship is very long, you know. I can skate from the bow to the stern like that." She snapped her long fingers, making a sharp noise.
"Wow," the younger child muttered. "Thats awesome."
The pirate shrugged casually. "Its nothing. Besides, sometimes the blood of my enemies runs thick along the deck. I dont like to get my boots dirty."
Once again, the green eyes grew wide. "You have enemies?"
"Of course. The English are constantly attacking me. Theyre evil," she said, her voice nearly a growl.
Jamie didnt have the gumption to tell her that she was under the control of one of the evil ones herself, so she just nodded in sympathetic understanding.
The carousel was beginning to slow, and Jamie looked at the operator with eyes filled with regret. But her sad look didnt change his schedule, and soon the ride stopped. "Erin go brágh!" the pirate called out, waving her sword as she slipped off the horse and leapt back over the fence, the smaller child staring after her.
In a daze, Jamie let the attendant lower her to the ground, then she walked along the fence, hoping to catch another glimpse of the daring pirate. Just before she reached her grandfather, another pirate broke out of the crowd, and with an evil laugh, snatched the crown right off of her head. "My crown!" she yelled, her hands slapping futilely at her now bare head.
Her grandfather considered running after the boy, but quickly decided that he couldnt leave Jamie alone to do so. So he picked her up, promising, "Well get you another crown, honey. Dont you worry about it."
But she was not to be comforted, hot tears running down her pink cheeks. "He was a bad pirate. Not like Grana," she declared, sobbingly mispronouncing her new friends name.
"There, there," he soothed, hugging her tight. "Itll be okay, Jamie."
"I want my crown," she cried. "Its not right to take it away from me."
Suddenly, the good pirate queen was standing right in front of her and decided to speak to the adult to get to the heart of the matter quickly. "Whats wrong with her?" she asked Reverend Evans.
"A bad pirate stole her crown," he said, fighting a smile.
The dark brows knit and blue eyes sharpened. "A pirate? About this tall?" she asked, holding her hand up to her own shoulder. "Blonde hair, with a patch over his eye?"
"Y yes. Thats him," Jamie declared.
"You wait right here, the queen instructed. "Ill get your crown back." And with that, she was off, running as quickly as her long legs would take her.
Jamie and her grandfather walked around the carousel so they could keep their eyes on her, with Jamie crying out, "Thats him," when her friend got closer.
The girl approached the boy warily, and they circled each other for just a moment. "Give me the crown," she demanded.
"No! I finally captured some real booty! Im not giving it back."
"It belongs to that little girl," the pirate queen reminded him. "You made her cry, you big jerk."
"So what? What are you, anyway? A pirate or a big baby?" As he said this, he shoved her hard, knocking her onto her butt in the sand pit. She scrambled to her feet, then kicked off the heavy rubber boots which had slowed her down significantly.
In her stocking feet, she took off, with Jamie crying out excitedly, "Go, Grana! Get him!" The younger girl pulled her grandfather along, trying to get closer to the action. He went along willingly, glad to have the child exposed to something a little more exciting than Elizabeth would ever allow her to experience.
The pirate queen chased the boy through the maze of playground equipment, both flying across the large climbing apparatus like a pair of chimps. Every time the girl would get close, the boy would take an evasive maneuver and just barely escape her lunging grasp. Up and down the sturdy wooden equipment they went, climbing around or over slower children as necessary, being yelled at by more than one irritated adult.
The boy jumped off the climbing apparatus and leapt for the gymnasts rings, sticking the crown on his head as he did so. He laughed heartily when he began to swing, knowing that the pirate queen couldnt even think of reaching him. But the queen was unimpressed, merely giving him a curious look, then folding her arms over her chest and smiling, standing about 10 feet in front of the boy. "Ya gotta come down sometime, Tommy Grady, and Ill be right here waiting for you."
"But youre supposed to get on the other set of rings and try to hang on as long as I do!" he sputtered in outrage.
"Is that in the pirate rule book?" she asked, leaning against a sturdy trashcan and crossing her long legs at the ankles.
"Its what we always do when we chase!"
"Always until today," the girl declared, giving him a very self-satisfied smile. "Ive told you before that I dont want you picking on little girls. Im gonna teach you a lesson today." She said this with an utterly calm voice, but there was a steely resolve in her tone and in her posture that caught the boy short.
"Shes just a stupid girl," he panted, pleading his case as he swung back and forth.
"Im a girl, you dunce," she growled. "And I dont like my men picking on civilians."
Something about her last statement struck Tommy Grady the wrong way. Unexpectedly, he flew from the rings and caught the pirate queen right in the chest. The two began to wrestle in the deep sand, a cloud of which nearly obscured them from the little princesss view. "Poppa! Hes hurting her!" she cried.
And it looked as if Tommy Grady was, indeed, getting the upper hand. Charlie let the kids tussle for a minute, figuring that it was generally best to let kids work out their issues among themselves. But the wrestling soon progressed to punching, with both young fighters getting to their feet as they began to whale on each other. The pirate queen was holding her own, but a well-meaning father reached the pair before Charlie could. The man grabbed the girl by the thick red sash she wore and pulled her off her feet, thinking that the fight would end when one of the participants was disabled. But Tommy Grady didnt see things that way. He hauled off and delivered a roundhouse punch, catching the queen right above the cheekbone.
The peacemaking father was so stunned that he let go of her, and her knees proved too rubbery to hold her up. She sank to the ground, holding her face and muttering something in a language that none of the assembled crowd could understand.
Everyone from the other children playing, to their parents stood in shocked silence for a moment. The girl finally rose, looking amazingly regal as she did so. "Are you all right, honey?" the man asked.
"Im fine," she said, her eye already red and swollen.
"Let me go to the concession stand and get something for your face," he offered. "Youre gonna have quite a shiner."
"Nah. Dont bother." Looking at her sometime friend, she said, "You shouldnt have done that, Tommy Grady." No sooner were the words out of her mouth, than she summoned all of her strength and hit him square in the gut. The boy bent over, gasping for air as the man grabbed her by the shirt and shook her hard. "Stop that right this instant!" he cried.
"Im done now," she said calmly. "Were even."
But Tommy wasnt feeling peaceable at the moment. He rolled around in the sand, holding onto his stomach for another few seconds, then got to his knees and spat, "Youre just a stupid girl!"
"A stupid girl who knocked you on your butt," she growled, stooping to pluck the crown from his head.
Marching through the sand in her stocking feet, she walked up to the princess and handed her the crown, gasping in surprise when the little girl threw her arms around her in an enthusiastic hug. The queen rolled her eyes at the childs grandfather, unaccustomed to this type of display from her usual playing companions.
"Thank you very much, young lady," Charles said. "But you didnt have to go to so much trouble."
"I didnt mind," she said. "He shouldnt do things like that to little kids."
"Who are you here with?" he asked. "Your parents should know you were hit in the face."
"Im by myself," she said, offering nothing more.
"How did you get here?" he asked.
"She came on her boat, Poppa," Jamie supplied helpfully.
The pirate queen gave her a smirk, then clarified, "After I got off my boat, I took the bus."
"Well, lets go to a pay phone. Your mother should know you were injured. Shell probably want to come get you."
"Dont have a mother," she said quietly, looking at some spot in the distance.
"Oh. Do you live with your father?"
"Then lets call him," Charles suggested.
"Hes at work. Wont be home til tomorrow night. Its no big deal, mister. I get into scrapes all the time. My da doesnt like it when he has to leave work to come get me."
Charles sighed, seeing by the look in her eyes that she was telling the truth. "Let me at least get you some ice for your eye. You wont be able to see by tomorrow."
She shrugged and followed him over to the concession stand, waiting patiently alongside of him. "Have you had lunch uhm what was your name, sweetheart?"
"Ry uhm Gráinne," she corrected, keeping her story straight. "Gráinne OMalley, the pirate queen of Connemara."
"Well, thats some title," he smiled. "Youve met Jamie, Princess of Hillsborough, and Im her grandfather, Charlie."
"Good to meet ya," the child said, sticking out her hand to shake.
"Now, you didnt answer my question, Gráinne, have you had lunch?"
"Huh-uh," she said quietly. "I brought a sandwich, but I ate it on the bus," she admitted.
"When did you come over?" he asked.
"8! The event didnt start until noon!"
"We wanted to be the first ones here," she said, adding smugly, "We were."
Laughing softly, Charles asked, "What would you like to eat?"
She looked away, her chin jutting out once again. "Nothin. Dont have any money."
Shaking his head at the state the poor child was in, he said, "Ill buy you lunch, Gráinne. Consider it payment for the return of the royal jewels."
Her face lit up in a warm smile, and she nodded. "Ill take anything. Anything at all. Im not picky."
"All right, then. Why dont you two go over there and get us a table. Ill buy lunch for all of us."
Gráinne obediently reached down and took Jamies hand, marching her over to an empty table to wait for lunch. A few minutes later Charles arrived, having bought three hot dogs and two hamburgers, as well as two bags of chips and three small sodas.
Jamie delightedly reached for a hot dog, but Gráinne held back, watching her new companions carefully.
"Let me get this ice on your eye," Charles said. "Can I use your bandana?"
"Sure." He removed
it, and wrapped the crushed ice up in it, then tied it around her head like
an eye patch. Her long, black hair now trailed down her back and she twitched
it away from her shoulders in an irritated gesture. "I shoulda braided
it. It really gets in the way."
"Its very pretty," Charles commented, but the girl just shrugged, obviously uninterested in fielding compliments. "Take what you like, Gráinne," Charles offered. "You look hungry."
She reached for a hot dog, slathered it with mustard, then finished it in three big bites. "Delicious," she proclaimed.
"Yeah, delicious," Jamie happily agreed, having barely made a dent in her own.
"Have something else," Charles urged, deciding to wait until the girls were finished before taking something for himself.
"Really?" the older child asked tentatively.
"Of course. Have all you like."
"Kay." She took a hamburger, once again covering it with mustard. She gave him a cautious look, then grabbed a bag of chips, digging into them with gusto. "This is fantastic, Charlie," she said, her mouth full to bursting.
"Glad you like it," he smiled. "So, what kind of a name is Gráinne?" he asked, noting that the childs accent came and went frequently.
"Its Irish," she declared proudly.
"Oh, so youre Irish," he nodded. "Were you born in Ireland?"
"I was," she agreed, accent fully in place now.
"And when did you come to America?" he asked, not sure whether she was telling the truth or not.
"I go back and forth," she said. "I just got back a little while ago." She reached into her sash and took out one of her swords. "My grandfather in Ireland made these for me this summer. Nice, huh?"
Charles looked at the well-made wooden weapon, admiring the workmanship. "Your grandfather does nice work."
"He can do anything," she said, her pride obvious. "Hes a fisherman."
"Do you sail on his boat, Grana?" Jamie asked, looking up at her adoringly.
"Yeah, I do," she smiled, then looked at Charles and rolled her eyes a little bit. Charles noted that even though Gráinne didnt make a move for it, her eyes continually swept over the remaining hot dog. Finally, he picked it up and extended it towards her, and she accepted it immediately. "Really hungry," she said, her mouth once again full.
Jamie was still working on her lunch. Having discarded the bun, she delicately dipped the tip of her hot dog into a small mound of ketchup, and took one tiny bite after another. When it became clear that Gráinne was finally finished, Charles ate the last burger, then watched Gráinne hop up to gather all of the trash and throw it away.
"Thanks very much for the lunch," she said politely.
"What are you going to do now?" Charles asked.
"Dunno," she said, looking around. "Play some more, I guess."
"Play with me," Jamie begged, looking up at her beseechingly.
"Play with you?" the older child asked, her eyebrows nearly reaching her bangs.
"Jamies an only child," Charles informed her, "and she doesnt have many friends yet, since she just started school. Would you play with her just a little while?" He knew that the girl was too old to enjoy playing with his granddaughter, but she seemed like such a sober, rootless little girl that he wanted to keep an eye on her as long as possible.
"Uhm " she fidgeted, obviously not wildly in favor of the idea. "What can we play? You cant play in that," motioning towards the dress.
"I can help out there," Charles offered. "Just in case, I brought some play clothes for you, Jamie. Would you mind changing in the car?"
"Play clothes?" she asked, unfamiliar with the term.
"Yes. I brought some clothes that you can play in and get as dirty as you like. What do you think?"
"Really?" she asked, still suspicious. "Really?"
"Yes. Really. Now lets go get you changed, and you girls can play for a while." Turning to Gráinne, he asked, "You dont mind playing for just a while, do you?"
She looked at the ground, thinking, then noticed that her boots were missing. "Oh-oh! I lost my boots!" She took off running, and a few minutes later Charles and Jamie caught up with her. The child was sitting on a bench, trying to get some of the sand out of her filthy, holey socks before tugging on the recovered footwear. "My brotherll slay me if I lose his boots!"
"How many in your family, Gráinne?" Charles asked, having pictured her sitting at a small table, alone, while she waited for her father to come home from work.
"Bunches," she declared, obviously not choosing to be too specific. She stood up and brushed off her hands, saying to her companions, "Lets go."
They walked over to the car together, and Gráinne waited outside while Charles wrestled his ticklish granddaughter into a yellow sweatshirt and a roomy pair of forest green overalls. He didnt know a lot about buying childrens clothing, so hed merely told the saleswoman that Jamie was six. Obviously she was small for six, because the overalls would clearly be large on her for another two years. He did better on the tennis shoes, thankfully, and after he had rolled up her sleeves and her pant legs a few times, she was ready for action. The little girl grabbed Gráinnes hand and took off running, yelling with delight as they scampered along the path.
Charles sat back and let them play, staying close enough in case he was needed, but far enough away so that Jamie could be herself for a change. He knew that his son and daughter-in-law loved their only child dearly, but the rigid environment in which the girl was being raised was not something he was in favor of. As he watched her play, he decided that he would have to arrange to spend more time with her alone, letting her express some of her normal childhood exuberance.
Watching Gráinne drag the little girl all around the playground, he decided that the young Irish lass was a perfect tour guide to the wilder side of childhood. She led Jamie down the steep, concrete slides, talking some other kids into letting them use their sheets of cardboard to do so. Jamie was a little frightened, so Gráinne rode in front, waiting patiently for the smaller girl to sit behind her. The look on Jamies face when theyd made it down was utterly priceless a blend of stark terror and intoxicating pride for having done something so daring, and having lived to tell the tale.
The girls ran through the playground methodically, with Gráinne patiently showing the smaller girl how to use all of the pieces of equipment. Charles was only tempted to get involved once, and thats when Gráinne climbed up to the top of one of the small swing sets and walked along the top bar like a gymnast a gymnast in her older brothers big rain boots, that is. But she was atop the bar by the time he could react, so he just walked over and stood underneath the bar, waiting to catch her if she fell. "Its okay," she assured him. "We jump off the roof of our house all the time. We never get hurt."
Charles doubted both ends of that assurance, so he stayed right where he was, smiling when the girl finished and then grabbed onto the bar with her hands before dropping softly to the ground. "I know how to fall," she confided.
"Grana knows everything," Jamie chimed in, obviously smitten with the older child.
"Do not," the dark haired girl scoffed, taking Jamies hand to lead her over to the organized games.
"Do too," Charles heard his confident young granddaughter insist.
A few minutes later, he watched in amazement as his plucky little granddaughter joined her friend in enthusiastically bobbing for apples, her long blonde hair dripping onto her shoulders when she emerged victorious, a bright red apple sticking out of her small mouth. Oh, my, he thought, were going to have to stop by my house, and Im going to have to learn how to make her hair look like it did when we left! Please, God, let my housekeeper still be there when we arrive. Shell know how to make her look presentable!
Gráinne and Jamie competed in every possible game, with the significantly taller girl even entering them in the three-legged race. They nearly won that one when the older child picked Jamie up and carried her for the last 10 feet, but she lost her footing near the end, and they wound up in a heap--dirt and grass stains covering both of them.
Charles ran over to check on them and Jamie looked up at him with the biggest smile hed ever seen. "This is so much fun, Poppa," she sighed.
Gráinne tugged her to her feet and dragged her off again, urging Jamie to compete in the potato sack race for her age group. The little girl came in nearly last, her small size and lack of muscle making the race very difficult for her. But her older friend was there to pat her on the back and congratulate her for trying.
When it was her turn, Gráinne won her race easily, with one of the mothers of the other children questioning her true age, and even casting aspersions on her claimed sex. Unflustered, Gráinne whipped out her Muni pass, which listed her birth date, then she proudly strode over to claim her prize, a plastic jack o lantern filled with candy. She and Jamie were picking through it, taking bites of their favorite treats when Charles approached to congratulate them. "Well done, girls!"
"Thanks, Poppa," Jamie beamed up at him. "I did good, huh?"
"You did very good, Jamie, and so did you, Gráinne."
"Dumb lady said I wasnt 8," she muttered. "Showed her. Im 8 for 3 more days. Still counts," she continued to grumble.
"You did very well in standing up for yourself," Charles agreed, thinking that the girl probably had quite a lot of experience in getting out of sticky situations.
"Well, thats that," the older girl said. "That was the last game."
"Can we go to story time?" Jamie asked, looking up at her with those big, green eyes.
"Story time?" The girl twitched her thumb towards herself in amazement. "Me?"
"Please, Grana? Please?"
Charles took a five-dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to Gráinne. "Why dont you get some ice cream from the vendor over there, and listen to a story or two."
Seeing the money made Gráinnes eyes light up, and she snatched it immediately. "Kay," she agreed. "Come on, Jamie." She grabbed the smaller girls hand and took off, running as always.
Charles watched them get their treats, then he saw the pirate queen put the change into Jamies pocket, and take her hand again to lead her over to the story circle. She was the largest and the oldest child in the group, but she didnt seem to let that bother her. She just settled against a concrete post and stuck her long legs out in front of her, Jamie at her side.
The story was a long one, and when it was finished Charles walked over to the pair, smiling when he saw his granddaughter sound asleep against her new friends shoulder. Gráinne rolled her eyes at the man, saying, "Little kids get tired easy, dont they?"
"They do," Charles agreed, bending to pick her up. "How about a ride home, Gráinne. You live in the city, dont you?"
"Uh-huh. But you dont have to take me," she assured him. "Im used to riding the bus."
"Id really like to," he insisted. "Come on." As they walked along he realized that he was trying to urge a young child to get into his car, and he started to feel uncomfortable about it. "Could we call your father, honey? I want to make sure he doesnt mind me giving you a ride."
"Oh, I know Im not supposed to get into a car with a stranger," she assured him, "but were friends now, right?"
"Right," he smiled, "but I think we should call."
"All right," she agreed, as they continued towards the car. They walked along in companionable silence, her plastic bucket banging against her knee. "Hey," she said, "theres my cousins!" She yelled in full voice, "Dermot! Declan!" and two slightly taller boys who shared her coloring and her dark hair stopped in their tracks.
"Ryan!" One of them called back.
"Hold on!" she yelled, then turned to Charles. "They call me Ryan," she shrugged, not wanting the man to think shed been lying. "Family thing." She took Jamies limp hand and placed a kiss on it, then tugged her bandana from her head and made a surprisingly elegant bow. "Goodbye, Princess Jamie," she said quietly. "Thanks a lot, Charlie. See you around."
"Are you sure, Gráinne? I could give your cousins a ride, too."
"Nah. Theyre with a bunch of guys. Well probably hang out for a while. Thanks, though." And with that, she took off, her rain boots flopping against the grass as she ran.
Charles watched her go, shaking his head at the rough and tumble, but surprisingly polite young girl. He loaded Jamie into his car and managed to get a seat belt around her, then drove to his house. Thankfully, the housekeeper was still there, and she agreed to help him get Jamie into shape to pass inspection at home. The girl was so tired he hated to wake her, but he finally managed to. She looked around confusedly, immediately asking, "Wheres Grana, Poppa?" A look of puzzlement swept across her features, and she asked, "Did I dream her?"
"No, honey, she met up with some of her pirate band. Theyre probably back on their ship by now."
"Oh," she said, a touch of sadness in her voice. "I had the best time, Poppa," she said. "Can we do this again?"
He gave her a warm smile that also held a bit of sadness and said, "I think this was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, honey. But well do our best to make some new adventures that are just as special."
"I love you, Poppa," she sighed, giving him a big hug. Cocking her head, she asked dreamily, "When I grow up, can I be a pirate on Granas boat?"
"Absolutely," he promised. "You can be anything you want, my precious princess."