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In Mourning

Chapter Text

The Poles, who lived in London, brought Susan back to her flat so that Uncle Harold could go home to his wife. Susan's main memory of the afternoon she returned from Reading was of lying on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea, like an invalid, while Peggy and Diana, Susan's flatmate, talked in whispers on the landing. She knew they were talking about her, and she thought she ought to mind it, but somehow she didn’t. They must be discussing how to take care of her, and for that she was grateful. She knew she had to sleep—she hadn’t had any sleep since the night before last—but it seemed impossible. Eventually, though, she dozed right there on the sofa, waking and dozing and waking and dozing until dawn, when she finally gave up, still exhausted, and put a kettle on the gas ring for the first of many pots of tea that day.

It was Monday. Diana rang Susan’s boss to explain the situation. The boss was very sympathetic and said that Susan should take as much time as she needed. Susan vaguely wondered how long that would be. She had the sense that she would have a lot to do, but she wondered where she would find the energy to do it. Whether from grief or exhaustion, she was having difficulty thinking straight. She kept thinking of things she ought to do, getting up to do them, and then forgetting what she had meant to do and lying back down again.

Apparently one of the things Diana and Peggy had discussed the day before was ensuring that Susan wasn’t left alone. Diana lived on an annuity she'd been given by her grandmother, which she supplemented by typing up manuscripts for professors and students at the University of London. So during the next week she was able to stay in the flat most of the day, rattling away at her typewriter for hours on end. Susan began to find the sound of the typewriter soothing. Some of Susan’s and Diana's other friends came by to spell Diana so she could go out to buy groceries, deliver her finished manuscripts, pick up new work, or just have a break. It was a little like the way women might help out a young mother with a new baby. Peggy came by every day. For a few days Susan did little but lie on the sofa.

But she couldn’t be completely idle. That first Monday she sent a wire, the same wire, to each of her fathers’ sisters. There was no way to tell the whole story in a telegram, and she didn’t try: “Father killed in railway accident stop letter follows stop Susan.” And then that afternoon she started ringing people. First she rang her parents’ friend and neighbor, William Pickford. He turned out to be the one who had given Susan’s name and address to the railway when they couldn’t reach her parents with the news about Peter. At least he already had a general idea of what had happened, so she didn't have to break it to him. He agreed to talk to the vicar in Wingrave about funeral arrangements. Then she rang Oxford and spoke to several people at Magdalen. Peter’s friend Jonathan, though obviously extremely distraught, offered to pack up Peter’s things and send them to her, and to find a friend of Edmund’s who would do the same with his things. By the time she was finished talking to Jonathan she was in floods of tears again. She went upstairs and said to Diana, “I don’t care how expensive it is, I’m going to have a telephone put in.” She didn’t know how long this would take. By the time the telephone was installed in the flat she would probably be finished with most of these awful conversations. But just the thought that she would have her own telephone soon made it easier to bear making calls from the landing, knowing that anybody might come up or down the stair at any moment. Later she went down again and rang Lucy’s best friend, Marjorie. At first Susan thought Marjorie might become hysterical, but after a moment she pulled herself together and offered to take over the task of telling the news to Lucy’s friends. This Susan gratefully accepted.

On Tuesday she tried to write to her aunts, but the paper kept swimming in front of her. Finally Diana offered to take dictation, so she dictated a letter to Aunt Helen in Massachusetts, with an apology at the end for not sending a handwritten letter. She had not seen Aunt Helen for nearly seven years, but her aunt had been sending regular letters and care packages since the war ended. Aunt Alice, who lived in Sydney, was practically a stranger. Susan asked Diana to retype the letter almost verbatim and then she posted both letters, feeling a combination of guilt and relief.

"You're being so good to me," she said to Diana.

"You'd do the same for me," Diana said.

"I'm not sure I'd have it in me, the patience to take care of someone like you're doing."

"But you have done," Diana said. "Don't you remember?"

Susan wondered for a moment what she meant. Then she remembered something she hadn't thought of in ages, that had happened when she and Diana were 16 and at school together. Diana had been very upset about something to do with a friend of her brother's, the brother who had been killed in the war. She wouldn't even tell Susan what it was all about, but it was bad, and Susan had sat with her night after night while she cried, and then helped her get up in the morning and brace herself to get through the day pretending that nothing was wrong. Susan couldn't remember how long this period lasted, but she remembered having been horribly bored and aggravated and trying to conceal these feelings from Diana. She wished Diana would stop crying and wanted to be anywhere else but in that room with her, but at the same time understood that she mustn't fail her friend. She hoped Diana wasn't too bored now.

After that she got back on the telephone. She rang Uncle Harold and then spoke to the man from the railway, Michael Malone. She thought that had sapped the rest of her energy for the day, but then Diana said "Hadn't you better ring Colin?"

Colin. She had barely thought of him in days. "Can you ring him for me?"

"I'd rather not. He's your boyfriend, I'd have no idea what to say to him."

"He's not really my boyfriend," she said. They had only been seeing each other for a few weeks, and even before the accident she had been thinking about telling him it was no go. He wasn't a bad sort, just a bit dull. They'd had a date planned for last Saturday night, but earlier in the day she had cried off, saying she wasn't feeling well, which was a lie. A few hours later she got the telegram, and since then Colin had hardly entered her thoughts.

"He certainly thinks he is. And one thing I will not do for you is break off with him," said Diana.

Susan looked at her friend and realized for the first time how much strain she was under. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her blond curls were in need of a wash. "I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have asked. The problem with you being so kind to me is that it's making me selfish."

She made herself go downstairs again and ring Colin's boarding house. It took a while for him to get to the telephone, and then she choked out her news. He asked if she wanted him to come over, but she could tell he didn't want to. She didn't want to see him, couldn't stand the idea of him touching her, so it was easy to tell him to stay away. A dutiful young man, he asked twice if she was certain. She assured him that Diana was taking care of her, and that she needed some time alone. Then she crawled upstairs and went to bed.

Wednesday was taken up with funeral arrangements. She didn’t like the idea of burying Peter and Edmund in Wingrave, as neither of them had much connection to the place. Their parents had moved from London to Bletchley in 1941 and then to Wingrave after the war ended, so Peter had never lived there and Edmund had spent very little time there, only a couple of summers. But both of the boys loved Oxford, and most of their friends were there, so she hoped there would be a way to bury them there, if not at the university, then in the city. And she wanted the funerals separate for another reason: she felt angry that she didn’t have the chance to mourn each member of her family separately, individually. Each one of them was unique, each had a special significance to her. But now they were all jumbled together. One funeral, while it might be less burdensome to arrange, seemed too much like burying them in a common grave.

On Thursday a man from the government with the almost humorously anonymous name of John Miller came to see her. He asked if she had begun to go through her father’s papers yet and seemed relieved when she said she hadn't.

“Does this have anything to do with what he was doing during the war?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, I can’t talk about that. But I’m afraid I must insist on having a look-see before anybody else does. Your father was a meticulous man, and I doubt he left anything sensitive in his private papers, but I do need to make sure.”

“All right,” she said. She had never met Miller, never heard her father speak of him, and she wondered that he seemed to know her father. Perhaps it was just by reputation. “But I suppose I ought to make certain that you are who you say you are, that you have the authority to do this…”

“Yes, of course,” he said, seeming oddly pleased. “I can give you the names of some people at the Foreign Office you can contact to verify my identity. And it doesn’t need to be right away, just as long as I get first crack at your father’s papers—I understand you have a great deal to do right now….” He stopped. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said, belatedly. “I ought to have offered my condolences first.”

“I understand. It doesn’t matter,” she said. She knew it wasn't a polite response, but she'd been having trouble coming up with the right phrases all week.

On Friday she learned that Professor Kirke had made Peter his heir and executor, and this duty would now fall to her as Peter’s next of kin. The professor had somehow managed to lose most of his fortune about eight years ago, so his estate consisted mostly of books, letters, and debts. Uncle Harold, who was a solicitor, said she could refuse the bequest if she wanted to, in which case the state would take over as executor. But she worried that the professor might have letters—including some from her and her siblings—that mentioned Narnia. She didn’t like the idea of anybody else seeing those, even if they didn’t understand their significance. It seemed probable that some of the professor’s books were valuable enough, if sold, to offset his debts, so accepting the bequest wouldn’t cost her anything except time. Uncle Harold said not to worry about any of that right now. The only really immediate issue was where to bury the professor.

Peggy tried to get Susan to come over for dinner that evening, but Susan had visited Peggy's home earlier in the week and found that the bustle of the household was more than she could bear. It was the house in which Richard had grown up, but at the beginning of the war, while he was in the navy, his parents and Jill had moved to Norfolk and never moved back. Now Richard and Peggy lived in the old Bloomsbury Georgian with his widowed sister, Frances, her two daughters, and three foreign students who boarded with them. It was a cheerful place, and under other circumstances Susan probably would have found it pleasant. But right now, what she wanted most was quiet.

“You need to eat,” said Peggy.

“I’m not hungry.”

“I understand that, but you still need to eat.”

“If I promise to eat a good dinner, will you stop bossing me around?” she asked, more sharply than she intended.

Peggy looked taken aback, and Susan could see that she was hurt. “I didn’t mean to boss you around, Susan,” she said. “I’m sorry if it seemed that way. But you haven’t been taking care of yourself.”

Susan felt the familiar prick of tears behind her eyelids. “I’m sorry,” she said, “It's just that I'm on edge. You’ve been wonderful. Without you and Diana I’d be a basket case.” What am I saying? she thought, I am a basket case.

“I’m making soup,” said Peggy. “I’ll bring you some tomorrow.”