Dusk had nearly fallen by the time John and his father set out for home; the rigging of all the ships in the dockyard loomed flat black against charcoal clouds, even as their steady creaking and the swish of the water seemed to stretch in all directions. John's back ached from long hours bent over the workbench, worse than usual because he and his father had remained an extra two hours, laying aside an extra store of planed planks to make up for the days that John would be away.
Away. A shiver brushed up John's spine and he hunched deeper into his jacket, but it was excitement and not the chill. His father's long silences sometimes made John uncomfortable on these evening walks home, but tonight the thrum of anticipation filled him near to bursting, and he was grateful that he did not need to talk.
Their walk took them along the main streets of Portsmouth, quieter than usual because of the late hour. They trudged in a silence of their own past the shops just closing and the pubs just opening, as well as a few already open long hours, spilling light and mirth onto the open street. The street grew quieter, and the paving-stones less even, until memory steered them unerringly through the thick darkness down their own little lane. They were still a few houses away when Harry flung open the door, impatient and beaming.
"Hurry up, then!" she cried, and John could hear her smile even if the golden square of light behind her threw her face into darkness. "Somebody's birthday dinner is getting cold!"
John stopped in the doorway to hug his sister and give her a peck on the cheek before ducking into the house to do the same to his gran as she rose from the table, laughing. "We near thought you'd fallen in the harbor, you so late with beef waiting on the table at home," she chided, but her eyes were merry.
"I can't wait, Gran," John returned warmly. He pulled off his boots and stood them in the corner while Harry and their grandmother moved plates and pots from the cook-stove to the table. John took his place behind his habitual chair, resting his hands on the back, and a moment later his gran moved to the place beside him while Harry drummed her fingers on the back of her own chair opposite.
John's father at last stepped to the table, and the four joined hands and dipped their heads. His right hand in his father's left, John felt, as he always did, the effort it cost the quiet man to gather himself for speech of any significance.
"Heavenly Father," he murmured, "we thank you for your countless blessings, for this good food, and for the comforts of family. We ask in particular that you be with John as he takes his days of travel." John couldn't help squeezing his father's hand slightly, his and Gran's both, at the surge of excitement he felt just thinking of the day. His father continued in a tone sharpened slightly in reproof. "Lord, bless us and keep us for the sake of our trust in you, you who know each of us by name, and for the sake of your Son in whose name we pray. Amen."
They took their seats and began passing plates in familiar rhythms. To have beef on the table was a rare pleasure, and for a few minutes they ate in appreciative silence.
"It's all wonderful," John said, coming up for air between bites. "Thank you both so much."
"Mmm. Ta." Harry lifted her glass as if to toast, even though it contained only water. "And don't forget the marmalade roll for afters."
"It's a big year, Johnny," Gran said, smiling at him. "Twenty makes you a man."
"He looks the same to me," said Harry teasingly.
"You just wait till the day after tomorrow," he replied, taking up the jest. "I'll walk in the door and you won't recognize me."
"And maybe we won't, at that," said Gran softly.
He met her eyes, at a loss for how to thank her properly; it was she who had interceded with their father to secure these few days for each of her grandchildren. She herself had been to Winchester twice, and once even to London, when she was young. "Yes," was all he said, in the end.
"So where are you going to go, John?" Harry asked. "How far can you get?" She wasn't nearly so interested as John was in the world beyond Portsmouth; for Harry, the city's two harbours framed world enough between them, and her two days of adventure had come and gone without her leaving the island, let alone the town. But she had tramped all over the city with John, his small hand in hers to take him away from their house and its smell of sickness, and knew even before Gran how the imposing stone monuments surrounding the naval base held him spellbound; and later, when they were a bit older and walking farther and longer to get out from under their father's grief, she would dutifully follow him up the hill at the north edge of the city to look out on the rest of England rolling away northward. After mum fell ill there hadn't been money enough to spare John's labor or Harry's even to send them to the ragged school for a few hours a day, so the monuments remained as mysterious and unreadable as the view from the hills. But to John they spoke all the same of a wider world, a world where men could think and speak and act and change the world thereby; a world where every day, and every person, didn't fade one into the other. Harry was happy enough that her entire world should be in Portsmouth, but she knew that her brother felt otherwise.
John fiddled with his fork. Even after changing plans a dozen times over, he had settled on how to spend his precious days of freedom over a month ago, but he still felt a bit shy talking about it as if it were something real. "I reckon I'll go to Wight," he answered, "since it is merely a few hours to cross the Solent. I would like to see the cliffs. Or," he said lightly, as if it were no matter,"perhaps I'll see if I can catch sight of a party at Osborne House." Harry clucked her tongue, scandalized; their father's face remained trained on his plate, but John read astonishment there all the same. "Not to interfere, of course; merely to see what I can from a distance." John flushed as he spoke, and felt a bit foolish; the Queen was certainly in London for the season, and the younger members of the family were most unlikely to sojourn there. All the same, he thought defiantly, he had only this one chance, and so of course he must take it. But he spoke instead of the humbler sights of Wight, of the abbey and the country villages and the reported beauty of the northern headlands.
Gran's face was soft with affection. "What wonderful things you'll see."
"And what stories you'll have for us upon return, eh Johnny?" His father looked up suddenly, face crinkling in the dim light, confident at last of something he could say to his son as if he knew him.
John smiled back, tried to push it all the way into his eyes. "Sure, da."
"You'll be warming us of a cold evening for years, I don't doubt, just from this one trip," said Harry.
"I suppose we can only hope that interesting sights will cross my path," John returned. He knew Harry's enthusiasm for a well-told tale was sincere, and that she treasured John's stories in particular, but he suddenly felt very tired. "Let's see about that marmalade roll, perhaps."
Later, after the meal was cleaned up and everyone in the family had retreated to their corners for the night, John's exhaustion deserted him as suddenly as it had come. He found himself struck almost with panic: his days out in the world were so close that they were already almost over, and all the many things he wished to see seemed already to be slipping beyond his grasp. He squeezed his eyes shut where he lay, and tried his best to pray that this one brush with the world beyond his little seaport city would bring him a chance to see what the people of that wider world were like, not just the same small bustlings he could find at home but matters of significance, people and deeds that deserved to be remembered. John knew he had a gift for storytelling, a rare gift, but what he really wanted was a story that would last.