Sea-legs are no use on land, Eustace finds, as the three of them stagger from the spare room on the day they return from Narnia. Harold and Alberta are at a garden party, and Eustace is glad of that, though before he would have whined about not being invited. He and Lucy and Edmund are raw and unwieldy, like lobsters that have shed a perfect skin and have yet to form a new protective layer. Colours seem too bright and yet imperfect; Eustace remembers optical illusions from his science books and wonders how long it will take their senses to recover after being drenched in the richness of Narnia.
The afternoon drifts on. Like a tingling foot that has been sat on for too long, practical needs creep back into Eustace's consciousness, though the slender pickings in the pantry offer no attraction, even after months of hard tack and watered wine. His body aches, and yet he can't quite sit still, not even on the large floor cushions he used perch upon like an emperor. He sees the same lassitude in Edmund and Lucy, as they move aimlessly about the house in Cambridge, not wanting to be alone but barely able to stand the company of the others. Lucy, in particular, is desolate, and that frightens Eustace. He has seen Narnia now, and cannot imagine how the other two can bear the news that they will never return again. As the shadows lengthen and the first night after Narnia approaches, Lucy and Edmund become grim and quiet. Feeling more than a little guilty that he will see Narnia again, and they will not, Eustace takes control. He ushers the two of them into the rarely-used kitchen, and awkwardly makes them cocoa, recklessly spooning the rationed powder into the saucepan and spilling the mixture into three misshapen clay mugs. The mixture is lumpy, and the milk is scalded, but Eustace enjoys the practicality of the exercise. He hands the mugs to the other two.
"Here. It's good for shock."
Edmund sips from his cup, and spits it out instantly. "Oh, that's vile! Has the milk turned?"
Eustace sniffs the milk gingerly, while Edmund pokes at the saucepan with the wooden spoon.
"This cocoa tin is older than I am, maybe it's no good anymore?" Lucy licks her finger and rubs away the dust on the label, revealing the word 'Bisto'. "Or, perhaps it's because you've made us a mug of hot gravy?"
The situation is so absurd, and the atmosphere in the tiny kitchen so homely that suddenly things don't seem so awful. The three of them lump together on the uncomfortable sofa, and the boys press Lucy between them.
"We'll be fine," says Edmund. He puts his arm behind his sister, and claps Eustace on the back. "We just need to stick together."
Accustomed to solitude in his parents' house, Eustace finds the embrace startling, but not unpleasant. He knows with some certainty that he will be returning to Narnia at some time. What else can Aslan mean by telling only Edmund and Lucy that they will never go back? Though he is aware that he has been changed by his journey on the Dawn Treader, Eustace cannot credit himself with enough goodwill to bear with any civility the idea that someone else could go to Narnia when he could not. Eustace finds it hard to believe that even the incredibly fair Pevensies could do any better. He cautions himself not to grow too accustomed to the idea of their friendship.
Once the Pevensies have gone home, the remaining weeks fly past. The house seems horribly empty without them, and it doesn't take long for Alberta's irritation with her son to reach boiling point. Three days alone with Harold and Alberta isn't quite long enough for Eustace to accept that his parents do not view the changes in their son positively. Before the Pevensies came to visit, he was certain that he was the most important person in his parents' lives; now he is hurt to discover that they would rather send him away than try to understand why he has changed. Still, he dutifully kisses Alberta on her pale, powdered cheek, and shakes Harold's hand before he climbs into the taxi to take him to the station. They are his parents, even if he no longer agrees with some of their ideas, and perhaps after some time breathing space at the seaside he will be better equipped to handle their differences diplomatically. Eustace learned many things in Narnia, but disappointingly, tact had not been one of them.
He is meeting with the Pevensies, who have taken a cottage in Brighton for the last weeks of the summer holidays. Eustace is nervous about the meeting, and on the train trip he blushes to remember some of the more revolting things he has said in front of Edmund and Lucy's parents in the past. Still, in his letters, Edmund has been very enthusiastic about the visit – wartime has decimated the holiday trade and the beach is nearly empty, but there is a little boat for hire that will be perfect for the three of them to sail. Peter and Susan are caught up in very grown-up affairs in London; important exams and dances and presentations. By the time that he arrives in Brighton Eustace is nervous and greets the Pevensies with a frown creasing his forehead, but Lucy flings herself upon him with a hug and Edmund gives his arm a good punch. Mr and Mrs Pevensie, tanned from travel in America, talk to him just as sensibly as they do to their own children, which gives him a surprise of the sort he has had quite a lot since Narnia; he was accustomed to thinking of them as harsh and old-fashioned people. He relaxes his shoulders and breathes in the sea air with relish.
Sailing the tiny boat is difficult. On the Dawn Treader, Eustace had little to do with rigging or navigation; his tasks were largely domestic: even now he cannot look at a scrubbing brush without a shudder. As part of a crew of three he has to learn fast, but the language of port and starboard, heading up and bearing away, are still familiar to him. It is wonderful to feel salt spray on his face and to hear birds calling overhead, a reminder that there are wonderful things in this world too, things that Narnia has taught him to appreciate. After a few hours, Lucy's nose has turned pink, and Eustace can feel his skin pulling tight and shiny across his face. Edmund, perpetually out of doors, has kept his tan, and stands by the mast, squinting into the bright sunlight. They put in at a shallow cove, and splash to shore, Edmund bearing the basket of sandwiches above his head to protect them from the waves.
Lunch is a gritty, sticky, delicious affair with thick sandwiches of potted meat and chocolate to finish. Gulls crowd at the edge of the blanket, demanding scraps. When all the crusts and corners have been thrown to the birds, and the chocolate bars demolished, Edmund stands up, brushes himself down, and pokes one toe at Eustace, who is lazing on his back, his eyes closed against the bright sun.
"Come on, get up. We don't have time to sleep." Edmund strides off through the sand. Eustace rolls onto his side and watches as Edmund pulls a canvas bundle from under a log half buried in the sand. Edmund unrolls the canvas with a flourish, revealing two wooden swords of the same length and breadth as those that they carried in Narnia.
"Lucy and I were talking about what Aslan said. It sounds to us that you'll likely be called back to Narnia one day." Edmund swings one sword capably; though it is only made of wood, his posture and assurance make the toy weapon seem more dangerous.
"And we want to make sure you make a good account of yourself when you get there." Lucy sits on the driftwood log, and wraps her arms around her legs to watch.
The sword is heavier than it ought to be, and Eustace examines it; strips of lead have been tacked along the length to give it weight and balance. Edmund gives him a moment to remember the feeling of the sword as an extension of his right arm, then they begin to spar in the sand, the wooden blades meeting over and over in a series of dull clicks.
The sword is heavy, and soon his shoulder burns from the weight, as do his legs from moving quickly through the dry sand at the top of the beach. Edmund snaps commands out in rapid fire, and Eustace strains to follow through, while Lucy spots for errors in posture or position. Soon, but not soon enough for his aching back and thighs, his body relearns the brief lessons of the Dawn Treader, and more than that, he begins to see the way an experienced swordsman breaks into segments the time between one swing and the next, always looking for a vulnerability.
"Enough!" Edmund brings his sword up effortlessly in a salute, and steps backwards. Eustace, barely able to catch his breath, is at least gratified to see that the other boy's shirt is soaked through, and his face is red. The two of them stagger down the beach and fall onto the outspread blanket. Lying on his back, salt seeps between Eustace's eyelids, stinging his eyes, making them water. When he sits up to wipe them, he sees that tears have drawn a clean line from the corners of Edmund's eyes to the blanket below his head. Edmund doesn't scrub them away as Eustace does, but rolls onto his side, where he can speak to Eustace before Lucy has caught up with them.
"If He says that I may not go there again, I ask of you this: go, and do the good that I may not." Edmund's voice is clear and low, and just for this moment, Eustace knows that he is speaking with King Edmund the Just, Duke of Lantern Waste and Knight of the Noble Order of the Table.
"I promise. I will do as you say: where things are wrong, I will find the way to put them right again." Eustace hasn't had a chance to read all the right sorts of books yet – there hasn't been enough time – but he hopes it is correct to clasp his hand in Edmund's, a way of making this an oath, the kind of thing that a King of Narnia would understand. Edmund closes his hand around his, and raises it to his mouth to kiss it, and Eustace feels the vow between them become a solid, real thing. He understands a little more the joy that Reepicheep spoke of often, at having the chance to fulfil a quest with valour.
A moment later, and King Edmund becomes Edmund Pevensie again: on his feet to chivvy Lucy who is daydreaming and dragging her feet in the sand, he gathers the wrappers and empty ginger beer bottles from their lunch, and asks Eustace in a perfectly normal voice which way he think the weather will turn. The three of them wade out to their tiny boat in time to let the tide carry them out into open seas, and onward towards home.