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"'You are cordially invited to the garden party of...' Ugh, social engagements."

"You promised your Grandma." Will points out. "I can borrow Father's car so that we don't have to stay over."

"They want us to bring Molly. Can you pick her up something... snooty to wear?" Carlotta asks, eying the little girl who is currently wearing a pair of hand-me-down dungarees and has discarded her shoes somewhere.

"Will do." Will nods.

They turn and peer out the caravan window at the sound of a vehicle drawing up.

"Oh, that'll be the recruits." Carlotta says. "The General said we were getting ten acrobatic trainees this time, we got five games, so they can man each game between two."

She puts on her Ringmaster hat and steps out. The recruits look new, and are lounging around near the van, already lighting up a cigarette. She strides over. One of the recruits whistles.

"Oi!" Will calls from the caravan. "Don't whistle at your commanding officer."

"Commanding officer? We were looking for Captain Francis." One of the cadets says.

"That's me." Carlotta says.

"You? A Captain?" The man bursts out laughing. Carlotta gives him a cold stare, but before she can come up with a suitably cutting response, Will has strode over.

"She saved a thousand lives in Gibraltar, prevented the destruction of an entire military base, and got shot, so show some damn respect." he snarls, removing the cigarette from the man's mouth, and stamping it out. "And don't smoke on the campsite."

Carlotta warms inside, just a little, and doesn't point out that she has to tell Will off every day for smoking on site. However, it looks like a fight is about to break out, so she removes her ringmaster whip from her belt and cracks it to suitable dramatic effect.

"ATTEN-SHUN!" she shouts. "Form a line, gentlemen."

This seems to get their attention. The men line up, looking slightly apprehensive.

"Right. Yes, I am Captain Francis, but Ringmaster will be fine. You are here for athletic training, and you are supposed to be undercover, so at the moment, all of you have failed.

"You'll be working on the games in pairs, between your intensive athletic training. Naturally the circus folk know why you are here, and have signed the relevant secrecy documents. You will all abide by circus rules, no smoking or drunkenness in the camp, be careful around the kids, and don't damage the site. Remember, we travel, and our continued touring is dependant on not damaging the land we stay on. Any questions?"

"Are you single?" One of the recruits asks.

"I'm her husband, do you want your face rearranging?" Will asks.

***

"Ugh, they're so sexist!" Carlotta groans, as they get in the car.

"It's hard for a man to accept that a woman outranks them." Will says. "Trust me, I know." He smiles gently. "But if I can get used to it, so can they."

It isn't too long a drive, just under an hour, to the garden party. It's a warm sunny evening, and Grandma expects them to socialise appropriately with her titled company.

"Carlotta!" Her father appears, giving her a hug and a kiss. "I can only be here for an hour."

"Father! Can't you take one night off?" Carlotta asks. "I've been trying to arrange some time with you to see Molly for eight months."

"Oh. Hello Molly." Father pats the little girl on the head, awkwardly. Beat. "I'm not good with babies, Carlotta, you know that. And I'm so busy with the business."

"Well, she's here now." Carlotta says, trying not to appear as exasperated as she feels. "Father, you missed me being a baby, don't miss Molly being one."

"Talk to my secretary, we'll schedule something." Father says. "The re-opened factory is going from strength to strength, we're selling to most of our old suppliers again..."

Carlotta listens, nodding politely. But shoelaces aren't all that interesting, particularly compared to her father missing out on his granddaughter being tiny. Before long, he excuses himself to go and mingle, leaving Carlotta to make awkward conversation with various of her grandmother's friends.

"We should really be going. Molly is getting tired." she says, after a few hours of painful schmoozing. "Has anyone seen Will? I haven't spotted him for a while..."

It takes her some time to locate Will. Eventually, she finds him at the bar, with a number of empty glasses.

"Will!" she hisses. "What are you doing? You're a recovering alcoholic, your sponsor said complete abstinence was the only way forward."

"They gave me a couple of free champagne, I'm fine!" Will whines.

"You're not fine, you're drunk." Carlotta says, irate. "How do we even get home? You can't drive in this state."

"I'm fine!" Will climbs up onto the bar and starts to walk along it, to presumably prove his sobriety.

"Get down! Grandma will kill me!" Carlotta hisses.

Unfortunately, it is slightly too late; Will's foot catches the edge of a tower of champagne glasses, and before she can stop him, there is an enormous crash, followed by Will falling off the bar.

"I think you should leave." One of the hosts says. "Your... sort... are not welcome here."

"My sort?" Carlotta turns to the man, in fury. "I apologise for my husband. He isn't well and I will take him home. We will pay for the damages of course. But I am the daughter of a gentleman, and an entrepreneur, and I have just as much right to be here..."

"You are the daughter of a glorified cobbler and a common traveller." the man says. "It's easy to tolerate your sort when you're well behaved, and our affection for your grandmother requires us to make some allowances, but we can't have such exhibitions."

"What rot!" A woman of about Carlotta's age, with springy blonde hair strides up. Carlotta recognises her at once, and wishes she'd spotted her earlier. The host backs down somewhat at once.

"Lady Bentley." he says.

"Fizz!" Carlotta embraces her old school friend in a hug, which Fizz warmly returns.

"Phyllis." the man corrects. "You know this woman?"

"Rather." Fizz says, turning back to the man. "We were at school together, and Carlotta is jolly decent. And as if you can talk about drunken indiscretion after your nephew vomited in our pot plants! It isn't sporting to talk about her Grandma and Father that way, apologise at once!"

The man mumbles a vague apology, and goes off. But Carlotta knows it'll be the talk of the party.

"Thanks awfully. Where were you hiding?" she asks Fizz. "I would much rather have spent time with you."

"Oh I can't bear things like this, I was hiding out in the shed with the dog." Fizz says. "I say, that's William Francis isn't it? Did you two..."

"Yes. This is our daughter Molly." Carlotta says. "Do tell me your new address, I couldn't get in touch with you for the wedding. I wish we could catch up properly but I think I better get Will home, he's in a bit of a state. He..." she hesitates then says in a low voice honestly. "He's had a bit of trouble since the war."

Fizz nods, knowingly, her face suddenly very sober.

"It was a terrible war." she says quietly. "I lost my brother, Harry. We miss him awfully."

Carlotta draws her into another hug, and holds her close.

"Where is Will?" Fizz asks, suddenly, in the middle of the hug.

"Right over..." Carlotta looks around. He'd been in front of the bar, getting helped up around bits of glass. Now she can't see him at all, and that's not a good thing.

After searching between them for the best part of an hour, it becomes apparent that Will is not at the party. The car is still there, but clearly alarmed by the amount of damage he'd caused, he seems to have run off.

"What should I do?" Carlotta asks, holding Molly. The guests have started to disperse, and she and Fizz are at a bit of a loss as to what to do.

"You should get home and put Molly to bed." Fizz says sensibly. "I'm sure William will be somewhere sleeping it off."

"But I can't drive." Carlotta says. "And what if he comes back here?"

"Then we better call the police." Fizz says.

She takes Carlotta inside to call the police. In a first bit of luck for the night, they already have Will in custody, sobering up.

"I'll drive you home." Fizz says. "If I can sleep over in the caravan. We'll come back in the morning and pick up Will."

"Oh Fizz, that would be wonderful." Carlotta says. "Thank you. I'm so sorry to be such trouble."

They get into the car, and see the host's eyes boring into them as they do so. Fizz glances at Carlotta, then makes a very rude face at the man. Carlotta laughs, despite her worries.

"Well you were dying to do that!" Fizz laughs back. "He can't ban me from the events."

She thinks about Will, alone in a cold police cell, as she goes home with Fizz. It's a horrible thought. But at least tonight, one she doesn't have to face alone.
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Carlotta Francis (nee Brown)

February 2014

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