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Fundamental Shift

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It’s a quiet evening after they get the news. The house is big enough by far that they could split up and mourn in peace alone but they stay gathered in one sitting room, her mother and father pretending to read. Catherine had been listening to the radio but the chatter had become abruptly unbearable so now she’s staring out the window, at a loss.

It’s dark out. The room is reflected back to her and periodically she can see one of the servants silently open the door to peak in, at a loss for what to do. Catherine imagines their training didn’t include what to do when the beloved son of your employees has been lost at sea miles upon miles upon miles away, information still incoming but assumed dead. She feels as if nothing she’s been trained for in her life has included that either.

Perhaps she is supposed to cry. Her throat feels tight with it and she can see in the light that there are tears rolling down her mother’s cheeks even as she remains silent and her eyes move across the pages of her book. She hasn’t cried in front of her parents since she was a child – it’s certainly not the family style and she feels that if she were to start now, it certainly wouldn’t be with the quiet dignity of her mother. It would be embarrassing and loud and her father wouldn’t know what to do with her and she wouldn’t know what to do with herself.

Catherine keeps her mouth firmly shut instead.

The next time a servant comes to the door, she’ll request they get her bedding ready. It’s only seven in the evening but this isn’t the kind of day she wants to linger over.

 

It feels strange in the following weeks to miss Gus in what were his rooms. He was rarely there between school and university but they were still his throughout the holidays, still hold his knickknacks and papers. Her father must have requested the servants continue not to disturb them too much, as had been the order ever since Gus had moved more permanently to London.

What this means is that when Catherine finally gives in to the urge to walk through his wing, to poke hard at the open wound of her grief, she’s struck with both a desire to throw every last one of his belongings away – to sweep off every surface, to burn the lot because what does it matter now? – and the devastating realisation that all the traces of him really being there are already gone and gone forever. The rooms are already just a carbon copy of what once was.

On his desk, the clippings she’d saved from Gus’ reports to The Times. She’d laughed when she first read them with their falsely chatty tone and teased Gus the best she could through the weekly wired correspondence but messages were limited. Catherine had stopped collecting after Gus’ appendicitis but she’d been planning on quoting them to him over breakfast when he came home, watching him flush and tell her to shut up and have both of them scolded for squabbling like they were still children.

She shuts them hard in one of the desk draws. She’s not a child anymore, and now she’s not even the baby of the family. Wandering around Gus’ empty rooms was a ridiculous idea; she has more responsibilities now, and there are endless things to organise, and what a waste of time even if none of these pressures existed. As if she could bring Gus back by standing where he used to spend hours at a time and wishing hard enough.

His friend Algernon will be visiting tomorrow to explain exactly what had gone so wrong in detail. Catherine stays in Gus’ rooms a little longer, preparing.

 

Catherine does not have the opportunity meet Jack Miller until some time after Gus’ death.

She knows her parents have been in contact with him, had listened dutifully as they shared it with her like she cared to know: ensuring there was no newspaper reporter knocking on his door as he recovered, sorting out the legalities of insurance, overseeing an amputation operation. Gus had included no lack of mentions of Jack in his letters before the expedition and during, as well as all communications going through the man himself while they had been away. Algernon had spoken of him when he visited.

She knows that he had no role in Gus’ death, not really. He hadn’t asked Gus to return, he hadn’t pushed him into the water or held him under.

And yet.

Catherine does not want to meet him.

She watches out of the window as he arrives, hobbling up the path with his head bowed. He’s thin and the husky with him sticks close to his side. A dog is something that Catherine can appreciate but she knows that her parents had arranged for their being reunited too, just one arrangement among many to fix all that they could. It makes her turn away from the window sharply and escape quickly to the farthest side of the house.

Catherine does not want to meet him because she does not want to hear what he has to say. To be angry at Jack is to be able to be angry at someone at least, to have some outlet for the injustice of it that builds in her day after day. To be angry at Jack is to be able to be angry that her parents have quietly condensed all traces of Gus’ life to his wing of the house and that they have taken on Jack as their replacement son, the person that can be saved. That they either don’t share her building anger or won’t be frank with her about it. God forgive her for it, but to be angry at Jack is to be angry that he is there and Gus is not.

She knows that if she hears him speak, if she sees him for herself in the flesh, that all that anger will vanish. Catherine has never been one for grudges, not as forgiving as Gus perhaps but nonetheless willing to forgive and the fact of the matter is that there is nothing to forgive Jack for to begin with.

Catherine isn’t sure what will come next once the anger burns out. She can only suppose acceptance will be the eventual endpoint with time healing all wounds. Something in her recoils at the prospect, though – acceptance of the death of her only brother? To go on, as if there hadn’t been a fundamental shift in the world. It’s unthinkable and she knows she’ll be one step closer to it if she looks Jack Miller in the eyes.

She stays away for the duration of his visit.

 

Despite her determination to hold on, the anger has to be banked eventually, put away to stay alive but no longer draw focus.

There is a war and Catherine helps in all the ways the posters ask her to and all the ways her fortune and position make possible, accepting the role of carer for the endless evacuee children and helping keep morale at dances where the girls pair up with the girls with all the men away. Gus’ friend Algernon is captured and it’s just one anxiety piled onto countless others; he’s not the only man she knows who is dead or MIA or brought home changed, though it makes her wonder in quieter hours how Gus would have fared it all which is a complicated hurt.

Jack is far away, working a placement in Jamaica that her parents had secured him not long before war broke out. Catherine spares little thought to him, glad for Gus’ sake that he’s safe but with more pressing matters to hand and part of her still clinging to her sense of injustice, unwilling to make that final step.

And then once the war is over, she’s preoccupied with helping rebuild where she can and the pressure of finding a marriageable man is breathing down her neck. The ache of grief never really goes away but she doesn’t have time to poke at it until well into 1946. She has a respectable gentleman with good humour and choice in dating activities, her parents are in good health, she feels comfortable in her friendships, and she’s received a letter from Algernon to say he is recovering well.

Catherine looks down at the letter in her hand, thinking. Hidden away in one of the books on her shelf is a photograph, one she’d requested from Gus’ friend Hugo as soon as she became aware it existed. She doesn’t pull it out now. She doesn’t need to. It’s the last photo she has of her brother alive, stuffed into his Arctic gear and proud as punch, and she has it memorised. What Catherine can’t visualise is Jack. His figure is a blur to her; tall, dark skin, skinny, but no expression that she can remember.

Perhaps someday she’ll pull the photo out of its hiding place again and study him in particular, this man that clearly Gus cared for but she knows so little of, even if today the sting of it is too strong.

But no doubt Jack’s a different person now than he was in the photograph, just as she is different now than she was then and again different now than she was when Gus’ death was a fresh, bleeding tear. Perhaps it’s time she accepted that there isn’t any fairness to be found in Gus dying but Jack did all he could to prevent it and has paid more than his fair share in consequences.

It’s surprisingly freeing to let the fire of her anger die out at last.

Catherine pulls out her address book and an envelope. She fills in Jack’s details on the front but stops there. She doesn’t begin a letter just yet, unsure of where to begin and what to share, instead placing the envelope facing forward on the shelf in front of her. It’ll be there for her when she’s ready.