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1984
Sylvia

Beginning with a wisp of baby hair and a photograph, Sylvia had kept a scrapbook for each of the girls. Petrova's was for some years rather thinner than the others', but as time went on it grew thicker, and more volumes were added, until suddenly one day Sylvia noticed the volumes marked 'Petrova' had filled an entire shelf, and there was no room for the new item that had arrived by morning post.

"You do take after that uncle of yours," Bill teased. "You're a Fossil collector."

After more than thirty years of marriage Sylvia was quite used to hearing bad puns, so she merely smiled at her husband and began to move things around to make more room on the library shelves. She found the activity a little tiring, so she sat down for a moment with a thick green volume in her lap, paging through the Cromwell House class portraits, a hand-drawn birthday card featuring a meticulously detailed engine, and the Citroën auto advertisement Petrova had pasted into her locker at the Academy. She paused to read a letter from Doctor Smith.

 

1939
Doctor Smith

16 July
Bloomsbury

Dear Miss Brown,

            Petrova will have told you all about the maths scholarship and how she will take her place at the University in September. Naturally Doctor Jakes and I are both terribly proud and pleased, and not a bit surprised by how well she has done. You needn't worry about making any arrangements; Professor Brown and Mr Simpson have already volunteered to drive and we are planning a jolly excursion to bring her up and see her settled into lodgings. I remember the halls being quite comfortable when I was a student and I expect they've improved. At weekends she will keep up with her flying at the local airfield, of course. She can only continue to excel, being one of the brightest pupils I have encountered in my career. I shall miss teaching her, but I plan to spend my (second) retirement basking in her reflected glory.

            Regards to Pauline, Posy, and Nana. Doctor Jakes sends greetings as well.

Yours sincerely,

E. Smith

 

1945
Mark

Mark tugged impatiently at the tops of his knee socks, which were slightly too short and kept sagging round the ankles. He had grown a good deal over the summer, and even with the end of rationing it was hard for Hannah to keep him decently covered. Mark did not generally care much about clothing, but today was important. Today Petrova was going to take him flying. He scowled at his reflection in the mirror, trying to cover the beginnings of a spot on his forehead by plastering down a lock of hair.

Petrova pulled up at one o'clock on the dot. Mark shot out the front door and clattered down the steps before she even had time to toot the horn. His father popped his head around the door Mark had left ajar and called out a cheerful greeting to Petrova, who waved from the open window of the car.

"Hullo Mr Forbes," she called back. "I'll have him home in time for tea." She put the car into gear and they headed off down the road. Mark found himself oddly tongue-tied, answering her questions about his cricket team in monosyllables and trying hard not to stare at her profile, in closer proximity than he was accustomed to seeing her. She smelled faintly of engine grease and there was a tiny splotch of ink on the side of her nose. They had met several times since the war had ended, but always with others around – his family, or Gum, or that godson of hers, Matthew Simpson, who was actually bored at the airshow. Now he had Petrova all to himself and he couldn't think of a single intelligent thing to say.

"We're going up in a Gypsy Moth today," she told him. "It's an older model, the type of plane I first went up in myself. I was just about your age."

Mark goggled at her. "You flew aeroplanes when you were twelve?"

"Oh, no, not until several years later. But Mr Simpson and I went up as passengers on a Sunday afternoon. I couldn't stop watching the wings, and the pilot, and imagining how it would be to work the controls and to understand the mechanism myself. I didn't want ever to have to come down. I'm not sure I did, really, in my head. Thinking about flying made the dancing more bearable."

"Thinking about going back to Wilton House made lessons at the Academy better for me," agreed Mark. "I was very glad when you helped send me back there," he added politely. Petrova looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

"I don't think I want to join the Navy and be a sailor after all," Mark blurted suddenly. "I'm afraid my father will be disappointed, because he has always expected me to."

"I see. Was your father's father also in the Navy?"

"No. He was a vicar, and he wrote a book about animals in the Bible. I tried to read it once but it was very dull."

"Well, Mark, I shouldn't worry about telling your father you'd like to do something else. I think he will probably understand. What would you like to do instead?"

"I'd like to learn how to build things. I helped the school groundskeeper put up a new shed last term. And I like playing football and cricket. And... I think I might like to fly." He blushed furiously.

Petrova smiled at him. "Let's go up, then, and see how you like it."

 

1952
Pauline

"Hullo? Winifred Bagnall speaking."

"Hello Winifred, it's Pauline! How are you? Is Petrova in?"

"Oh my goodness! Yes, I'll just fetch her."

"Pauline! Wherever are you calling from? It must be costing a fortune!"

"New York. I've had a telegram from Garnie, and I simply couldn't wait to congratulate you. Doctor Fossil! I can hardly believe it. You'll be in history books now for sure."

"Oh Pauline, I haven't vowed in years. Can you imagine? How could I have forgotten?"

"You've been much too busy, I expect. Only you could work as a test pilot and earn advanced degrees at the same time. I am dreadfully proud of you. We must have a special toast to you at the wedding."

"Don't you dare! It's Garnie and Mr Forbes's – I mean Bill's – special day. I don't want any fuss over me."

"Well then, we'll have to have another celebration just for you."

"Oh Pauline..."

"Yes! I'll cable to Posy, and she and Winifred can start planning at once. It will be splendid! I'll be there in one week. You really must hurry up and think of a way to make transatlantic flight easier; it's so tedious having to cross in a ship."

The crackling connection cut out before she could hear Petrova's reply.

 

1963
Mr Simpson

3 August
Banyuls-sur-Mer, France

Petrova—

We were delighted to receive your letter and package today. My wife and I shall enjoy reading your book (though she fears it will be too technical for her), and we are so touched to be mentioned in the dedication. I have already had a look at the diagrams, which are most impressive. This is a grand achievement. I am very glad to hear you won't be leaving for America until after we have returned to London. You both must come to lunch as soon as possible and tell us all the details. This will teach me to summer in France: I've missed all the fun! My granddaughter thanks you for the model Bentley and wants to know if you will be keeping your dog.

Your friend,
John Simpson

PS: Happy Birthday! Parcel en route. – J.S.

 

1972
Winifred

On the morning of the launch, Winifred got up before dawn. Petrova always woke early with a peculiar feeling around the middle when she knew she would have to make a speech. Winifred was prepared for this, and brought her a cup of tea in bed.

"Nervous?" Winifred asked, perching beside her on the edge of the bed.

"Very. This is the last Apollo mission, and it's got to be successful. It's got to be."

"Do you wish you were going up?"

Petrova sat up. "I do. The shuttle program is being developed, but it's too late for me to become a commander. I just want to fly. I want to do everything! I want to know exactly how all the elements work and to test them fully myself." She fiddled with the cup, turning it around and around in her slender hands. Winifred noticed that her salt-and-pepper hair was looking more salty than peppery these days. "It's not enough, you see. Or rather, it's too much. Space exploration is so enormous that one can only work on tiny pieces of it. When I designed planes, I could draw the plans from scratch, then help build them and even fly them myself." She smiled sheepishly. "I don't like to delegate."

"You want to leave NASA? Now?"

"Well, not today. But soon. How would you like to go home to London?" She watched Winifred's face carefully.

"I would like that very much. But what will you do there?"

"Buy a little biplane and torment Mark by beating him in air races." Suddenly energized, Petrova leaped out of bed and pulled Winifred to her feet. "Come on, darling, I've got a spaceship to launch!"

 

1984
Sylvia

Sylvia picked up the biography that had arrived that morning, tracing the cover portrait with her fingers and rereading the embarrassed note Petrova had penned on the title page. It was a fine book, beautifully bound, with several pages of glossy photographs in the middle and a list of Petrova's own publications at the back. She shelved it carefully, leaving plenty of space for more to come.