Chapter 1: Invalid
24-29 April, 1949
Susan gets by with a little help from her friends.
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.”
Yes, I have added Mr. Pevensie to the long list of fanfic characters who were at Bletchley Park during the war. I had already decided a) that he was in intelligence, and b) that he and Mrs. Pevensie were living in Buckinghamshire at the time of the accident, so it seemed pretty natural.
Chapter 2: A Week of Funerals
25–30 April, 1949
On Saturday, a week after the accident, Harold and Alberta held a memorial for Eustace, who had been cremated, at their house in Cambridge. Susan had not seen Alberta since the accident, and for the first time in her life she felt an impulse of sympathy and fondness for her aunt, who looked gray and drawn and hopeless. Later, after the memorial was over and they were clearing up, Alberta harangued Susan for an hour about vegetarianism. Susan was staying the night and wished she had decided to go back to London instead. Eventually she pleaded a headache and escaped to her room.
On Sunday there was a small service for Polly Plummer in York, which Susan didn’t attend. York was really too far to go just for the day, but even if it were a lot closer she probably wouldn't have gone.
On Tuesday, Father, Mother, and Lucy were buried in Wingrave. As Lucy’s coffin was lowered into the ground, Susan fought back a sudden impulse to shout out, “No, don't! My sister is in there!” Not for the first time since the accident, she wondered if she was going a little mad.
On Wednesday she split up with Colin. She wished she had done it sooner, because having him stand with her at the funeral the day before had felt very, very wrong.
On Thursday Peter and Edmund were buried in Oxford. Jill’s funeral was the same day, in the Norfolk village where she lived with her parents. Peggy, of course, was at Jill’s funeral, which meant that she wasn’t there to help Susan drive away the young man who seemed to think a funeral was an appropriate occasion to chat up a girl who had just lost her entire family. Susan later reflected that she had picked exactly the wrong day to break off with Colin, who might have provided some protection. Uncle Harold wasn't there, either, because Alberta was in some kind of crisis and he couldn't leave her. Susan did the best she could on her own, but she was sure that if Peggy, or her uncle, or even Colin had been there she wouldn’t have had to go so far as to slap the bastard. On the other hand, after slapping him she felt better than she had since before the accident, and she found herself hoping that somebody else would do something awful enough to justify being slapped.
On Saturday, after what had been a rather tendentious negotiation with the university, Professor Kirke was buried at Cambridge. The only people at the funeral were Susan, Uncle Harold, and three old dons, one of whom pestered Susan about some books that he believed to be in the professor’s possession. He said he had lent them to the professor years ago and wanted them back. Afterwards, Uncle Harold asked if she'd like to stay the night with him and Alberta. He didn't seem surprised when she declined.
Her plan to mourn her dead individually had failed. The whole week was a crazed stew of images, feelings, encounters, conversations, and thoughts that she knew she would never be able to resolve. Everything seemed fragmented, disconnected, but at the same time bizarrely merged and overlaid. Nothing fit together neatly, and nothing could be separated cleanly.
She went home and slept. Sometime in the last week she had gone from being unable to sleep to wanting to sleep all the time. Waking was painful. Sometimes she wished she could sleep the rest of her life away.
Chapter 3: Burdens
15-16 May, 1949
Susan worries about all the things she has to do.
“I think I’m going to have to quit my job,” said Susan.
“Won't they give you another leave of absence?” Peggy asked.
“Maybe. But it wouldn’t really make a difference, I still wouldn’t be earning anything. And right now it’s sort of nagging at me—when am I going to be getting back to work, how long will they hold the job for me, all that. If I don’t have that hanging over me, perhaps I’ll be able to concentrate on getting everything settled. I can look for a new job when I have it all finished, it’s not as though there’s anything special about this one.”
“Well, but what would you live on?”
“I think I can get by for four months on savings, six if I’m careful. And Uncle Harold's already offered to advance me something if I run short. Normally I wouldn’t want to eat up all my savings, but…well, I ought to have some money once the estate is settled. Not a lot, but more than I have in savings now.”
“How long do you think it’ll take? To get through the worst of it, I mean.”
“Probably three or four months, if I work at it. I need to sort through all of my parents’ things and then get the house ready to sell. I’ve got all of Ed’s and Peter’s things from Oxford—thank heaven their friends packed them up for me. And Lucy’s friend Marjorie offered to come to Wingrave the day after tomorrow to help me go through her clothes and things…But none of them had very much. It’s all mostly sentimental. Trinkets and clothes and…you know…” She sighed. “Lucy and Ed and Peter, they left so little behind…”
She felt tears starting and rummaged in her pocket for a handkerchief. Peggy nodded sympathetically.
"You must be sick of seeing me cry," Susan said. But luckily Peggy was the kind of friend who didn’t try to make you act normal and happy when you were anything but. If only she would stop nagging Susan to eat properly.
"I don't enjoy seeing it, but I'd probably be more worried about you if you didn't cry." Peggy said.
"Yes, I suppose so. Do you want another cup of tea?"
"No, thanks. I'm going to have to be off soon."
Susan nodded. "I think I'll have another," she said, and got up to put the kettle on the gas ring. "The real headache is what to do about the professor’s things," she continued. "It’s all books and letters, and those take forever to go through. Some of the letters could even be valuable. You’d be amazed at some of the people he corresponded with! I only looked through a couple of his desk drawers, and I found letters from Robert Graves and C.S. Lewis."
"Is that the fellow who did those lectures on Christianity on the radio?"
"That's the one. And from what Peter told me, there are probably letters from G.K. Chesterton and T.E. Lawrence and God knows who else stashed away in trunks...I did think of donating all the books and letters to the British Museum, but the professor had so many debts. I’ll have to sell some of his books, at least, otherwise I’ll be paying his debts out of my own pocket….”
“I thought your uncle said you weren’t obliged to do any of that, especially since you’re only inheriting as your brother’s next of kin. That you could refuse the bequest and let the state take care of it.”
“I know. But…I feel responsible. And there are some things I have to look for, in his papers. Personal things, that I wouldn’t want anybody else to see.” She suppressed a sudden impulse to tell Peggy about Narnia. The last thing she needed was for Peggy to start worrying that she was going bonkers. “It’s nothing shameful,” she said. “Just private.”
Peggy reached across the table, took her hand, and squeezed it. “I know it’s difficult, but you’ll get through it,” she said. "Now, I really must go, I have to get home and fix supper for everybody. Do you want to meet to swim some laps tomorrow morning, before you leave?”
“All right. It would have to be early, though, my train is at 10:00."
“Let's meet at the pool at 7:30. Are you sure you won’t come to dinner? You know Richard's always pleased to see you.”
“Willem probably would be, too,” Susan said. Willem—who was Dutch, not German, as he was sure to tell you within a minute of meeting you—was one of the three students boarding with Peggy and Richard. The others were Robert, a very serious chemistry student from the West Indies, and a 6’4” New Zealander with the unlikely name of Gurth, who was studying at LSE. Susan suspected that Peggy took in boarders mainly because she liked company, liked taking care of people, and found foreign students interesting, not because she and Richard needed the income.
“Oh no, has Willem been coming on too strong?” asked Peggy.
“No, not really. I’m just not interested in that kind of thing right now. I can’t even imagine it. So anything at all is coming on too strong.”
“I suppose that makes sense. What you’re doing now is taking so much out of you. But I hope you won’t be angry if I say I think it’s a passing thing. You’ll be ready again eventually. I don’t know how long it will take, but not too long, I should think.”
Susan shrugged. Right now time didn’t make much sense to her. It seemed like years since the accident, but it was only three weeks. At the same time, it was all so fresh. She heard their voices, saw them on the street. When she woke up in the morning, she let herself imagine for a moment that the past three weeks were all a dream, but even as she imagined it, she knew it wasn't true.
The next morning she got up early and she and Peggy met at the pool to swim laps. Peggy was a good swimmer, good enough to pace her while they swam laps, as long as Susan didn't go full out. It seemed bizarre to her that a year ago she had been thinking of nothing but training for the Olympics. She would never quit swimming, but her plan to keep training and competing, and then in three years try to qualify to go to Helsinki, seemed completely uninteresting now.
After they were through she went home, changed her clothes, picked up her valise, and hurried to catch the train to Aylesbury.
I have placed Susan on the British women's swim team for the 1948 Olympics, which of course were in London. There's lots of interesting stuff online about the "austerity games." Susan didn't win any medals, because I didn't want to distort the historical record too much, but I imagine that she made the finals in three events. The British women came in fourth in the 4x100m relay.
In case you're wondering why swimming and not archery, there was no archery competition at the 1948 Olympics. Although archery was included in the Olympics several times in early 20th century and was one of the first Olympic events in which women competed, it was dropped after 1920 and wasn't reintroduced as an Olympic sport until 1972. Interestingly, the woman who won in 1972 was over 40, only a couple of years younger than Susan would have been, going by the timeline I'm using.
I have given my uncle a cameo here as one of Peggy's boarders.
Chapter 4: Housekeeping
16 May, 1949
Susan wonders what to do with all this stuff.
She had to take a bus from Aylesbury, and by the time she arrived at her parents’ house in Wingrave it was mid afternoon. She walked up the gravel path and unlocked the door, pretending that she felt no sense of trepidation, no sense of dread. Someone, probably Mr. Pickford, had brought in the trunks and boxes with her brothers’ things, and they were sitting in the hallway just inside the front door. The house seemed dark and stuffy, and she started to open some windows to air the place out.
She decided that a substantial tea would make up for skipping lunch and supper, and since Peggy wasn't here she knew she could get away with it. After taking her valise upstairs to the room that had been hers during the year she lived here after leaving school, she looked in the kitchen. Mrs. Pickford had cleared out the perishable food from the icebox and the larder, so the kitchen cupboards were clean, if not bare. She had also clearly been watering the vegetable seedlings that Mother had started, which were all lined up next to the window. There was some stale cereal and some stale biscuits in a tin, but there were also stocks of things she could use: tea, sugar, flour, tapioca, tinned fruit, raisins, and jars of applesauce and pickled cabbage that Mother and Lucy had put up last autumn. Susan thought of gleaners on the field after a battle, looking for survivors and picking over the corpses, and then she chided herself for the thought. This wasn’t like that at all. If nobody used the groceries in her mother’s larder they would go to waste, and one thing the war had taught her was that wasting food was a terrible sin. She supposed she could donate the unopened tins to the Red Cross, but the tinned fruit was the one thing she really wanted: fresh fruit was expensive, and it seemed like a treasure trove. Mrs. Pickford would probably be happy to take most of the rest.
Susan went out again to buy bread, butter, and eggs. She fed herself mechanically, sitting at the beautiful oak table that had been her mother’s pride and joy. She had no attachment to the house itself, which was just one of many houses she had lived in over the years. What made it home was her mother's furniture, her curtains, her carpets. But what was she going to do with it all? Some of the furniture was very good, and there were several pieces, like the table, that she knew her mother treasured. And then there was her mother’s good china and silver. She would feel guilty just selling it off, but she had no place to put it all. And besides, it was not really to her taste. A lot of her mother’s things had come down to her from her own mother, and they were very heavy and Victorian. Susan resisted an impulse to ring Uncle Harold and ask him what to do. The poor man had enough on his mind.
She washed up and put the tea things away, and then she wondered what to do next. She didn't want to start going through Lucy's things until tomorrow when Marjorie got here. Marjorie lived with her parents just a few miles away and had said she would bicycle over, so she ought to be here early. And John Miller was going to come at 10:00 to start looking through her father's papers. A few days ago Susan had gone down to the Foreign Office and talked to some people there. A Miss Pritchard had confirmed that a John Miller was attached to the office and gave her a code word and a countersign, so that she could be sure that the man who came to the house really was John Miller. This made Susan feel like she was in a novel, or a particularly lurid American movie.
She went outside into the back garden. It looked as though Mrs. Pickford had been doing some weeding, especially in the vegetable beds, although there wasn't anything planted there yet. Her mother had probably been planning to plant her seedlings right about now. If she kept looking at it she was going to start crying again, and she was sick of crying, so she went into the larder, put a few things in a bag, and took them across the lane to the Pickfords. Mrs. Pickford invited her to supper and told her she was welcome for supper every evening while she was here. "I'll have to tell my friend Peggy that you're feeding me," she said.
After supper she made herself go from room to room, doing a little survey of what was in the house: on the ground floor was her father's study (but she wasn't allowed in there yet), as well as the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room. She was relieved to find that the cellar was nearly empty except for the dolly tub (luckily empty), the copper, and the mangle. On the first floor were her parents' bedroom, the bathroom, the linen cupboard, Lucy's room, and her own old room, which was now used as a spare bedroom. The room that Edmund and Peter had used when they were here was in the attic. The attic proper was full of crates and trunks. She decided not to look in the garage. Her parents' car was there, and Lucy's bicycle, and probably a lot of other things as well.
Overwhelmed, she decided to go to bed. There were no ghosts in this house, she told herself. Only large, heavy objects that would have to be dealt with, and innumerable smaller things—books, jewelry, trinkets, letters—that would have to be sorted. And there was more to come. A few days ago she had gone to the professor's tiny furnished flat and packed his things higgledy piggledy into crates. Luckily a lot of it was boxed up already; it had probably been boxed up since the last time he moved. She'd had it all shipped here so she wouldn't have to keep paying his rent. Those crates should arrive in a few days, and then she would go through them more carefully. God knew how long it would take.
She felt a deep resentment. It was all too much. Bad enough that she had lost them all, now she had to clear up everything they had left behind.
I have no real knowledge of how the Foreign Office would go about doing something like going through Mr. Pevensie's papers. I'm just guessing.
Susan's feelings here are largely based on observing how my father coped after my grandmother died. There was only one of her, but she had a lot of stuff, and it was in complete disarray. It was a massive headache, and a certain amount of resentment was inevitable.
Chapter 5: Portraits and Landscapes
17-18 May, 1949
Susan finds Lucy's sketchbooks.
“A faun, how sweet,” said Marjorie.
Susan looked up in surprise. Marjorie was kneeling by an old trunk of Lucy’s, holding what looked like a sketchbook.
“A what?” Susan asked. Marjorie turned the sketchbook so Susan could see the page.
Tumnus. Susan recognized him immediately.
“I think these are all Narnia pictures,” said Marjorie, turning the pages of the sketchbook. “Look, here are the four of you dressed up like medieval royalty!”
It was all Susan could do to restrain herself from snatching the sketchbook out of Marjorie’s hands. “May I see that please?” she asked. Marjorie handed her the book. The drawing of the four of them in their coronation robes was followed by a landscape: a view of Cair Paravel. She shut the sketchbook hurriedly. “I had no idea Lucy could draw so well,” she said.
“There are more in here,” said Marjorie. Susan looked into the trunk. There were quite a few sketchbooks. Were they all Narnia pictures?
Wait a minute, had Marjorie just mentioned Narnia?
“What did Lucy tell you about Narnia?” Susan asked, not quite succeeding in keeping a quaver out of her voice.
“Oh, all about it. She made it seem so real.”
“You mean, she told you it was a game?”
“Not exactly,” said Marjorie, “I always thought it was a country you’d all made up together. The Brontës did that, did you know? They had imaginary countries that they wrote about.”
“No, I didn’t know that. How funny….”
“But sometimes when she talked about Narnia I wondered if she thought it was real, and then I started to believe it was real, and that all of you really had adventures together there. I was so envious. I wanted to go there.”
“Yes, I’m sure it did seem very real…” said Susan.
“Are you all right, Susan? I know this must be hard for you.”
“Oh…I’m all right. But I think I’d like to put these away, to look at later, on my own. Narnia was…very private.”
Marjorie looked disappointed, but all she said was “All right. Shall we take a break and have a cup of tea?” They put the sketchbooks back in the trunk. Susan was aching to look at them, but she couldn’t do it while Marjorie was there. She didn’t trust herself to act anything like normally. They went downstairs and made a pot of tea, and she took a cup to Mr. Miller, who was in her father’s study. Miller was looking for military secrets in her father’s papers; upstairs in Lucy's bedroom there was something even more secret, so secret that she was now the only person alive who knew the truth about it.
Susan and Marjorie had finished going through Lucy's clothes and trinkets earlier, so after they finished their tea they decided to tackle Lucy’s letters. They didn’t read any of them, just sorted through them and bundled them up according to the sender. Marjorie collected all of her own letters to Lucy to take with her.
Next they went through the books. Marjorie asked if she could have Lucy’s old copy of Five Children and It, and Susan said of course. In the end Marjorie took all of Lucy’s E. Nesbit books, a couple of books by somebody named George MacDonald, whom Susan had never read, and Lucy’s well-worn copy of Jane Eyre. For herself, Susan set aside The Hobbit and a very old edition of Alice in Wonderland that had belonged to their mother. She hesitated before picking out three pamphlets by C.S. Lewis. Lucy had listened to his lectures when they aired on the radio during the war and bought the booklets as soon as they were published. Susan didn’t really understand the appeal of them, but she knew that the lectures had been very important to Lucy. She also took a copy of The Screwtape Letters, which she had been meaning to read but not yet got around to. Lucy had said that it was funny, but it made you think. Then she picked out some books of poetry: Tennyson, Wordsworth, Christina Rosetti, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The rest of Lucy's books would go to the Red Cross. Susan had already decided not to sell any of her siblings’ books. None of them would fetch much from a bookseller, and she thought Lucy and the boys would have liked to know their books were going to soldiers or people in DP camps.
All the time they were doing this, Susan had an itchy feeling about those sketchbooks.
Marjorie and Mr. Miller left together. He'd offered Marjorie a ride home, and she managed to stow her bicycle in his car. Susan thanked Marjorie and they hugged and said goodbye. She promised to ring Marjorie when she got back to London. She watched and waved good-bye as Miller backed the car into the lane; he would be back tomorrow morning at 10:00.
She went back into the house, trying to ignore the pull of the sketchbooks. Mrs. Pickford was expecting her for supper, and she knew that once she got started with the sketchbooks she might not want to put them down. But as soon as she could get away after supper, she hurried back to look in the trunk. The first sketchbook appeared to be recent, although the pictures were all of people and scenes from their years as kings and queens in Narnia. Susan was astounded. How had Lucy remembered it all so well? There were dates on some of the pages, all within the last year.
Susan understood a little better when she looked at the next sketchbook. Many of the sketches in this book were earlier versions of the same drawings. They appeared to have been done during that first dreadful autumn after they came back through the wardrobe, into an England that seemed duller and drabber and more awful than they could bear. It had been like a nightmare, going back to being children again after having been adults, and royal ones at that. Susan and the boys went to boarding school that autumn, but Lucy stayed on with the professor until Mother and Father moved to Bletchley early in 1941. From the dates on the pages, it seemed that Lucy had spent much of that autumn drawing sketches of Narnia. Lucy had learned to draw and paint in Narnia, but they all found that many of the skills they had learned there had disappeared partially or completely once they were back in England (Susan had been extremely upset when she realized that her archery skills weren't what they had been, and she had worked hard to regain them). Apparently Lucy's ability to draw had carried over better than most of what they had learned in Narnia. The drawings were certainly very good for a nine-year-old. Over the years since then she had become a more accomplished artist, and some time during the last year or two she had redrawn many of the early sketches. These early drawings were less polished than the later ones, but in some ways Susan liked them better. They seemed more immediate, more alive.
Here were Tumnus, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Giant Rumblebuffin, Pomona, Sallowpad, Lord Peridan. Here also were many whose names Susan had forgotten, or perhaps they weren’t portraits of anybody in particular: dwarfs, centaurs, dryads, river spirits. There were portraits of Edmund and Peter as grown men, of Susan as a woman, looking older than she did now, and several self-portraits of Lucy at different ages (Susan recognized one of Lucy's favorite dresses). There were some landscapes as well, though not very many. They were not as good as the portraits, but Susan had no trouble recognizing most of them: the Great River, the coast of Galma, Stormness Head, the Lantern Waste, the Hill of the Stone Table. These were people and places she hadn’t thought of in a long time, that lived in her mind more like stories she had been told as a child than things she had experienced. She had always been torn between the desire to remember and the conviction that she had to move on, that remembering Narnia would only make her life here harder to bear. Now the memories were coming back, whether she wanted them or not. There were drawings of their friends at Anvard: King Lune, Queen Kerr, Corin with his cocky grin. Then Cor, thinner and more serious than his brother, Aravis in profile, and the two of them in a wedding portrait. There was even a sketch of the twins, looking about 14, with both of their parents—a scene that could never have happened, since Queen Kerr had died before Cor’s return. Susan turned another page and almost dropped the book: Rabadash, handsome and arrogant, and on the opposite page, a drawing of an ass. On the next pages there were some sketches of Duke Nicoli and Duchess Mira of Galma and their children. Then a group of three Horses, possibly Hwin and her husband and daughter, although Susan couldn’t be sure. Countess Marga of Terebinthia, who had been one of Lucy’s dearest friends.
There were no sketches of Aslan, unless you counted some drawings of what seemed to be a flowing mane. Probably Lucy had known that she couldn’t do him justice. Nobody could.
Some of the sketches later in the book puzzled Susan: a parklike woodland dotted with many small pools; a grim-looking, ruined city; a flying horse with two children on its back; a hill with a walled garden at the top. Susan didn’t recognize them, but they seemed familiar somehow, not like something she had seen herself, but more like something she had been told about. She thought perhaps these were scenes from the professor’s adventures in Narnia, things that he had described to Lucy during that long autumn when the others were all away at school.
The next book had dates starting about a year later. These were images from their second journey to Narnia. The first notebook had been in black and white, but these were done with colored pencils: Cair Paravel in ruins, Trumpkin, Caspian, Dr. Cornelius, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, Glenstorm. She and Lucy hadn't seen Peter's duel with Miraz, but there were some pictures of that, too. There were Bacchus and his Maenads, the River God rising from the water, people who looked like trees and trees that looked like people. There was Susan herself, bow drawn, a determined expression on her face. Susan couldn’t bear it any more. She shut the book and put it back in the trunk.
The house was dark now, and she started turning on the lights—all the lights she could find, because suddenly the house seemed full of ghosts. She went downstairs and made herself a cup of tea, but she didn’t drink it. Instead, she sat at the dining table with her head in her hands, poised between the pull to remember and the desire to forget. Even considering that some of the drawings had been done right after they returned from Narnia, they were, as far as Susan could remember, remarkably accurate. Certainly most of the people in them were easily recognizable. Lucy had carried these vivid images back from Narnia in her head. No wonder she was less inclined than Susan to forget. After a while she fetched a blanket and lay down on the divan in the living room. Leaving the lights on, she wrapped herself in the blanket and eventually fell asleep.
In the morning she got up early and went again to look at the sketchbooks. It turned out that the notebooks she’d looked at the night before contained most of the drawings whose subjects were really familiar to her. The rest of them appeared to be drawings of Narnia from later adventures. Susan had been told of voyage of the Dawn Treader, but she didn’t remember many of the details, so she didn’t understand the significance of some of the drawings: a group of Calormene merchants; a man with a table overturned before him and a disgruntled expression on his face; a clawed, reptilian-looking limb, cruelly squeezed above the joint by a metal ring; a naked man lying face down with his arms stretched over his head; a man with wild hair and staring eyes; a flock of birds flying toward the sun; the face of a girl who seemed to be looking up from underwater. But there were also lots of pictures of life aboard the ship: Edmund, Eustace, and Caspian in various combinations; some other men who seemed to be members of the ship’s crew; Reepicheep perched in the rigging, flourishing his rapier, or paddling a little coracle. There were a number of pictures of a handsome, rather roguish-looking man who Susan thought might be Lord Drinian; she remembered Lucy talking about him (while Edmund rolled his eyes) and thinking that she must have been sweet on him. A sea serpent needed no explanation, nor did an albatross, and she remembered Lucy’s stories about the Dufflepuds, the Magician, and Ramandu’s island, so she had no trouble recognizing these.
In the next sketchbook she found images that were even more unfamiliar. She recognized Eustace and Jill in some of them, and she presumed these were drawings of the adventures they had had had in Narnia together, which she had never been told much about. There was a grief-stricken old man with a beard, some Owls, a Marsh Wiggle looking suitably glum. There seemed to be a lot of giants and strange-looking troll-like creatures. There was a terrifying giant snake. There was Caspian, looking about 30 years old, dressed in black and with a sober expression on his face. After a while she gave up looking at them. Searching through the trunk, she found that for each sketchbook of drawings from the early 1940s there was a parallel book of more recent renderings of many of the same images. Some of these were labeled with names or comments, which brought more of the details to her mind.
There were also several books that contained no sketches of Narnia. In fact, Susan noticed that Lucy had kept Narnia and England firmly separate in her sketchbooks. Many of the drawings were pictures of friends and family drawn within the last year. Susan wondered whether something had driven Lucy to do this, or whether it was just that she had more time to draw whatever she liked (as opposed to what her art teachers demanded) once she finished school and started her gap year. Whatever the motivation, the drawings were wonderful. Lucy was a talented portraitist. Here was their father, with the furrow in his brow that always made him look so impatient. In another drawing he was bent over a book. In another, he was lying on a blanket in the grass with his hands behind his head, looking more relaxed than Susan had ever seen him. Here were several studies of their mother in the garden: on her knees in the vegetable bed; pruning roses; picking apples. And here was a more formal-looking portrait of Mother and Father together. A family portrait of the Scrubbs. Uncle Harold playing the piano. Two contrasting drawings of Aunt Alberta: one in which her still, shadowed face looked deeply anguished, another with her face alight, mouth open, apparently talking a mile a minute and gesticulating with her hands. Some of the drawings of Eustace made him look like the boy Susan remembered, but there were others with a humorous, thoughtful look that made him seem more like the boy Lucy claimed he had become. Here was a picture of Professor Kirke with such a kind expression on his face that for the first time in years, Susan felt truly fond of him. There were pictures of Jill, Miss Plummer, and a number of Lucy's school friends, a few of whom Susan recognized.
Susan liked the pictures of Edmund best. There were pages of sketches of Edmund in all his many moods: thoughtful and studious, ironic, righteously angry, smiling gently, laughing uproariously, frustrated, biting his lip in concentration, worried, elated. Peter was not so multi-faceted. Susan didn't think he had always looked quite so noble as he did in Lucy's portraits, but then, Lucy had always rather idolized Peter. There were drawings of Susan too, of course, looking serene and confident, every hair in place. Susan was rather disappointed in these—was this really how Lucy saw her?—until she turned to a page of drawings of herself during swimming competitions: poised to dive into the water; sitting by the poolside paddling her feet in the water; in the pool looking up and grinning; standing with her arm around another swimmer (was it Cathy Gibson after they lost out on the bronze medal in the relay at the Olympics?).
Lucy had drawn some self-portraits, and Susan was sad to see that Lucy looked quite plain in most of them. Susan sighed and felt a surge of exasperation at her mother and father. As far back as she could remember, her parents had designated each of their children with a role in the family. Peter was the Leader, Susan the Beauty. Edmund had Brains, and Lucy was the Good Child. Years of being told that Susan was the Beauty—which meant, of course, that Lucy was not—had affected the way Lucy saw herself. Lucy was very pretty, but even if she hadn’t been, it was an awful thing to do to a young girl. (Another refrain concerning Susan was that she was "no good at school," and she sometimes wondered how much of a self-fulfilling prophecy that had been.) Susan looked back at Lucy’s self-portraits in the Narnia sketchbooks and saw that she looked much prettier in these, and much more the way Susan saw her: Lucy the Valiant. That made her feel a little better.
There were two notebooks filled with drawings of animals: horses, rabbits, dogs, cats, badgers, frogs, lots of birds, and zoo animals like tigers and elephants. Susan was one of the few people who knew Lucy's ambition to become a veterinarian; their parents had certainly known nothing about it. They had been in an ongoing struggle over where Lucy would go to university in the autumn. Mother and Father wanted her to go to Somerville, at Oxford, where Peter and Edmund could look after her (as if Lucy needed it!). Lucy wanted to go to King's College London and had taken and passed the entrance exams before she even told their parents about it. Susan was sure Lucy would have prevailed eventually.
Susan heard a loud knock at the door and realized it must be 10:00. She wiped her eyes, put the sketchbooks back in the trunk, and went downstairs to let Mr. Miller in. When he saw her face he said “I’m sorry, did I interrupt you at a bad time?”
She shrugged. “I expect most of my times will be bad times for quite a while,” she said. And then she remembered her manners and invited him in.
By noon she had packed up all of Lucy’s things. Most of the clothes and books were going to the Red Cross. Susan brought all of those crates downstairs and carried them into the garage. Then she brought down the trunk with the things she was keeping for herself: the books she had set aside last night, a piece of Lucy’s knitted lace, a funny china dog that Lucy had loved, and Lucy's letters and journals, which she hadn't yet had a chance to really look at. And the sketchbooks, of course. Nothing could make Susan part with those. If the house caught on fire, there was no doubt what she would have to save first.
The three booklets by C.S. Lewis mentioned are the ones that were published later as Mere Christianity.
There were still DP camps on the continent in 1949.
The drawing of "Caspian, looking about 30 years old, dressed in black and with a grim expression on his face" is actually Rilian. Most of the other images in the drawings should be obvious if you know the books reasonably well.
From what I've been able to glean, in 1949 veterinary medicine was considered even more a man's profession than being an MD. I presume this was because the field was still primarily associated with large animal medicine and farming. I could also be completely wrong about this....
I find the British education system baffling, so may have made some major mistakes.
Chapter 6: Learning To Be Alone
18 May, 1949
Susan thinks about how she drifted away from the rest of her family.
After packing up the last of Lucy's things, Susan felt raw. She needed some time to breathe and collect herself, and she tried to think of something to do that didn’t promise to be emotionally grueling. She decided the best thing would be to go through her father’s clothes. They held no special significance for her. Somehow, men’s clothes never seemed as intimate and personal to her as women’s: they were just clothes.
She started with her father’s end of her parents' closet, wondering if she ought to save some of his better clothes in case Uncle Harold wanted them. They weren’t the same size, but Uncle Harold could have them altered, which was still cheaper than buying new. Clothing had finally gone off ration, but that didn't make it any less expensive or any easier to find what you wanted, so it was still "make do and mend" for most people. She set aside her father’s best suit, which was rather out of fashion but made of very good cloth, and planned to do the same with anything else she thought might be worth the bother of altering. She would ring Uncle Harold later to find out if he wanted any of it. Once again she tried to banish the feeling that she was picking over the bones of the dead. She started taking down the rest of the clothes in her father's end of the closet, folding them as best she could, and putting them into crates. As she had guessed, this was not a very emotional task. She let her mind wander.
Because of the sketchbooks she was thinking more about Narnia than she had in years. But the sketchbooks had also got her thinking about that first autumn after they came back. Until a few weeks ago, she would have said that was the worst period of her entire life. She thought that must have been when her path started to diverge from her siblings’, although she didn't realize until a long time later how much they had grown apart. The previous school year Ed had been at a special school for very bright boys—which turned out to include some boys who were very bright about devising ways to torment the younger and weaker students, and also very bright about covering it up. The school hadn’t found out what was going on until nearly the end of the summer term, by which time Ed had been enduring it for months. Susan never learned all the details, but considering some of the things that routinely passed muster in most boarding schools, it must have been very bad. In any case, their parents wouldn't send him back to that school, so the autumn after they returned from Narnia, Ed went to school with Peter. Lucy, who wasn't considered old enough for boarding school, stayed with Professor Kirke.
And that autumn, only a few weeks after they came back through the wardrobe, Susan went back to her own boarding school alone. She had nobody to talk to about Narnia, and they couldn’t write about it openly in their letters to each other because you never knew if the matrons might be reading them. She was disorientated, alienated from her pubescent body, stricken by the loss of her Narnian friends, and frustrated by her powerlessness. She was constantly making mistakes because she had forgotten so much about how this world worked. And she was almost completely cut off from anybody who knew about Narnia. At half term the boys stayed at school because their parents thought there was no point in traveling so far just for a week. But Susan, who thought she might go mad if she had to stay at school, managed to persuade them to let her spend the week with Lucy and the professor. Lucy seemed sad, but serene, and she didn’t appear to understand why Susan was so agitated. Having seen the sketchbooks, Susan now realized that at that time Lucy was still living largely in a dream of Narnia. But she hadn't known it back then, and it was one of the few times in her life Susan could remember feeling that Lucy was letting her down. During the second half of the term Susan had to make herself stop thinking about Narnia. She deliberately denied it, pretending it had all been a game, because it was the only way she could see to manage. And then when they were all together at Christmas, nothing was the way she wanted it to be. The two boys were closer than they had ever been. Before Narnia they had quarreled and sniped at each other all the time, and even in Narnia, they had often been at odds, but now they were practically inseparable. Lucy seemed lost in a dream. The others all wanted to talk about Narnia, but Susan was afraid that if she did, it would make it all the more difficult when she went back to school. She didn't object, but sat quietly and let their talk wash over her, and she wasn't sure if any of them realized how little talking she did. Susan felt almost as alone as she had at school.
This went on for two more terms. Over the summer holidays they were all together for six weeks, and she started to feel more like her old self, whatever that meant. But then on the way back to school they returned to Narnia and found all their old friends were long dead. Aslan told her she would not be coming back to Narnia, which was simultaneously an agony and a relief. That year she and Lucy were at school together. Susan didn't want to think or talk about Narnia, but she didn't want to leave Lucy with nobody to confide in. So she listened when Lucy talked about Narnia and did her best to respond and pretend she found it fun.
The next summer Peter stayed with Professor Kirke, and Lucy and Edmund had another Narnian adventure (with that little swine Eustace, of all people!). Susan went to the States with her parents, separated again from all of the “friends of Narnia.” She enjoyed most of that summer. She was seeing new sights, eating new foods—rationing had only just started in the States, and there were fruit and sweets and meat and all sorts of things you couldn't get at home. In California she ate a strange and delicious fruit called an avocado, which wasn't sweet at all, but soft and oily. People were starting to spread it on bread instead of butter. She was hearing new music. She was meeting new people, including the aunt, uncle, and cousins she knew only from photographs and letters. Like Narnians, Americans spoke more or less the same language as she did, but with funny and interesting differences. For the first time since she had been a woman in Narnia, boys were paying a lot of attention to her, and she enjoyed this until she somehow got into a frightening tussle with a friend of one of her cousins. Luckily she was able to get out of it with nothing worse than a couple of bruises, but for a long time after that she didn't want anything to do with boys, and she was still rather more suspicious and wary of men than many of her friends were. All of these experiences had solidified the differences between her and her siblings. When she came back from the States, she no longer wanted to talk about Narnia or think about Narnia at all. What was the point? If you didn't pay attention to what was going on around you, you might find yourself with a boy who was kissing you one minute and twisting your arm the next. Thinking back, it seemed significant to her that one of the main things she remembered from hearing the story of the Dawn Treader was Lucy going on about Lord Drinian.
A lot of things changed after that. She and Lucy went to different schools again, and then a couple of years later Peter went to war. Eventually Susan left school and moved to London on her own. She wished now that she had done more to try to bridge the distance between herself and the others. But what could she have done differently? She didn't know.
She had finished her father’s end of the closet and had half the contents of his dresser drawers in boxes when she heard footsteps on the stairs. A moment later she looked up to see Mr. Miller standing in the doorway.
“Sorry to bother you. I'm finished with the papers in your father’s study, but I'd also like to make sure there's nothing up here I need to look at.”
“I don’t think there is. I haven’t seen anything,” she said.
“Do you mind if I just take a look around to make sure?”
She shrugged, wondering what he would do if she said no. She stepped back and watched while he quickly looked through the drawers. “All finished,” he said after a few minutes. “I checked the boxes in the attic earlier, but I didn’t see anything that looked worth opening. Please do let me know if you find anything. I doubt you will.”
“I didn’t even notice you’d gone up there,” she said, rather taken aback.
“I hope it doesn’t bother you. I poked my head in here, but you seemed so absorbed, I didn’t want to say anything in case it startled you.”
She felt angry that he’d watched her without her knowing it, but she supposed this was natural behavior for a spy. “Did you find anything in my father’s papers?” she asked, sounding more belligerent than she intended.
“If I had, I couldn’t tell you,” he said.
“I know he was in intelligence during the war. I figured it out when he and Mother and I flew by military aircraft to the States, the summer of 1942. He said he'd called in a favor from a friend to get us on the plane, but the whole trip was so odd. A linguist going on a lecture tour right in the middle of the war.” Miller just smiled a perfunctory smile. Susan wanted to hit him. "He used me and Mother as cover," she said. "Don't you think I deserve to know something about it?"
"Miss Pevensie, there's really nothing I can tell you," he said.
“I’ll just see you out, then,” she said, and stalked through the door, leading him downstairs.
Miller shook her hand at the front door. “I do appreciate your being so understanding about this intrusion,” he said. “I know this must be a very difficult time for you, and I admire how well you've been managing. If there's anything I can do for you, to make it easier on you, please let me know.”
“You’re not going to try to console me or something like that, are you?” she said nastily, “I’ve had enough of that sort of thing from my brothers’ friends.”
For the first time, she seemed to have cracked his mask of slightly ironic composure. “Of course not. Do you—I haven’t—I must be at least twice your age…” he said, clearly aghast.
“In my experience, a lot of men don’t worry about little things like that.”
She disliked him, and he certainly wasn’t the kind of man she usually found attractive, being rather pale and pudgy, but she had a sudden vision of executing a sort of rugby tackle and having her way with him on the floor. The idea was both exciting and sick-making. She glared at him. “You’d best be off,” she said, and he took his hat, nodded, and left. She closed the door behind him and leaned against it.
Now she was alone again. Just at the moment, she preferred it that way.
Toward the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy sees that Edmund looks better than he has since "his first term at that horrid school which was where he had begun to go wrong."
The bit about spreading avocado on bread instead of butter is from my dad's memories of the war. Probably they wouldn't really have been doing that until 1943, when butter rationing started. My dad speculates that avocados were cheap in California because the war effort was affecting non-essential shipping, so the growers couldn't get the fruit to the usual markets.
Yes, Susan is suspicious of men. She has reason to be, going back at least as far as the Rabadash debacle. And yes, she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder, but again, she has reason for it.
Chapter 7: If—
19 May, 1949
A lot of what Susan knows about Peter is second hand.
The next morning, Susan decided to tackle her brothers’ things, which were piled up in the front hallway and were rather in the way. Looking at the labels, she found that fewer than a third of them were Peter’s. He had rid himself of a lot of his belongings and packed up the rest before he was called up for National Service. There were probably several crates of his childhood books and playthings up in the attic, but still, it looked as though he had whittled things down to a Spartan level.
The first couple of crates contained clothes. Susan set aside Peter’s greatcoat. It was about the right size for Mr. Pickford, and it was a good coat, so she thought he might like to have it. She took out a couple of his good shirts, thinking they were too good to give away, wondered what else she could do with them, and put them back. The rest of the clothes she put back in the boxes without looking too carefully at them. They could be donated. There was a box containing stationery and ink and pens and notebooks and so forth. Susan decided to donate most of this as well. She was starting to feel very impatient with this kind of small detritus. If she looked at every last button and bangle, she would be at this forever.
She remembered with a pang the package that had arrived at her flat a week after the accident. It contained her parents’ wedding rings, her father’s watch (broken, but probably repairable), his reading glasses (also broken), her mother’s pearl earrings, wallets belonging to her father, Peter, and Edmund, Peter’s watch (miraculously unscathed), Lucy’s charm bracelet, and Lucy's handbag (missing most of the contents, which must have been spilled all over the floor of the compartment). Her mother’s handbag had either been mislaid by the railway or mangled beyond recognition.
The next of Peter’s boxes contained a miscellany, although she realized that she really ought to be careful to look at everything when she opened a smaller box that proved to contain his good cufflinks and tie pin. Was this really all that was left of her brother?
There were several boxes of books. Most of these reflected the fact that Peter had been reading English history, but there were a few books of poetry and fiction. She picked up a book of Kipling’s poetry and turned to “If—,” which had been one of Peter’s favorite poems when he was a boy. Opposite the last stanza Peter had written “Bollocks!” He must have written that after he came home from Germany. A battered copy of Billy Budd rather surprised her, since it didn’t seem at all Peter’s taste. Then she remembered what she had finally wrung out of Edmund about why Peter was discharged and sent home less than 18 months after his enlistment: in order to protect a German civilian (Edmund didn't say, but Susan guessed it was a woman), he had struck a senior officer. Luckily for Peter, the senior officer’s commanding officer had known quite well that Peter was the more trustworthy man and believed his version of events. Still, there ought to have been a court martial. Things might not have gone well for Peter, since it was really only his word against the officer’s, and in order to avoid that possibility the whole thing was hushed up and both Peter and the man he had assaulted were honorably discharged and sent home. A happier ending than in Billy Budd, certainly, but apparently Peter had not found that much consolation. He had not been in a good state of mind when he came home. Most of what Susan knew about what had happened to Peter in the war—very little—came from Edmund. The war ended only a few months after Peter enlisted, but it sounded as though in many ways the occupation had been just as bad, or worse.
The next box was full of letters, all neatly sorted, bundled, and tied up with string. She picked up a stack of letters from Professor Kirke and another from Lucy. The bundles were obviously not Peter’s doing—he might have kept Lucy’s letters together, but he wouldn’t have tied them up with a knot, since he’d be expecting to receive more from her. She supposed that Jonathan must have gone through them and sorted them while he was packing Peter’s things. She realized why when she was looking at one of her own letters to Peter and found a letter Jonathan had missed because it had been stuck into the envelope with hers. Jonathan had written it last summer. She only read a couple of sentences, but it was obviously part of a longer correspondence, and it was obviously a love letter.
She didn’t read enough to get a very clear idea of what kind of relationship it was, whether a romantic friendship or something more physical. She didn’t even know if Peter had reciprocated Jonathan’s feelings, only that they had certainly remained close friends after the letter was written. Well, it wasn’t any of her business. But she wondered what to do with the letter. Sending it back to Jonathan might cause embarrassment. But she didn’t want to keep it or burn it, either. Finally she sat down and wrote a note.
Dear Jonathan, I didn’t read very much of this, I promise. Only enough to know that you would want to have it back. I’m sorry that I didn’t realize until now what a great loss Peter’s death must be for you. It makes me all the more grateful for your kindness to me.
She signed the note, put it in an envelope with Jonathan’s letter, stamped it, addressed it, and put it on the table by the front door so she would remember to post it. Then she closed up the box again; there was no need to go through all of Peter’s papers right now.
Chapter 8: French novels
19 May, 1949
Edmund had been in the Service, too, but it didn’t seem to have marked him the way it did Peter. He hadn’t been to the continent until more than a year after the war was over and didn't see combat. His time in the Service was the result of careful planning. He had gotten his School Cert a year early and he could have taken the exams for his HSC in the summer of 1947 and started university at 17. But men were still being called up, and they probably would be for some time. He didn’t want to have to interrupt his university studies when that happened. So in July of 1946, within a week after his 16th birthday, he volunteered for National Service. Father agreed to it because the war was over and because he approved of Edmund’s overall strategy; besides, although Peter had always been his favorite, he and Ed were a great deal alike and understood each other very well. Ed served 12 months in Trieste and 6 months back in England, where he claimed to be translating documents (Susan suspected he was doing some kind of intelligence work, but it probably amounted to the same thing). He was released from active duty into the reserves in January, 1948, started the spring term at school a couple of weeks late, and finished out the summer term. He took and passed the HSC exam and his Oxford entrance exams and started university in the autumn of 1948.
Susan wondered how he would have done things differently if he'd known he would never finish his first year at Oxford.
He had told Susan that he had spent most of his off-hours while he was in the Service reading French novels. Looking at his books, Susan could well believe it. What she hadn’t realized was that he’d been reading them in the original. She was glad to see that, in addition to Balzac, Stendahl, Zola, Flaubert, and Maupassant, he also had Verne and Dumas (the English translations he had read as a boy were probably in one of those boxes in the attic). Some poor French-speaking DPs would probably be thrilled to have these books. Well, maybe not À la recherche du temps perdu—had Ed really read the whole thing in the original? There was no way to be sure, because unlike Peter he didn't write in his books. There were a few novels by Colette, too; Susan had the impression that these were a bit naughty, but then, according to her friends, all French novels were a bit naughty. Probably that was why Ed liked them.
Really, it was a very good way of explaining her brothers’ personalities in a nutshell: when they were boys, they had both liked adventure stories, but Peter adored Kipling, while Edmund preferred Dumas.
Chapter 9: Deluge
19-20 May, 1949
More boxes arrive.
By the time Susan finished her third day of sorting and packing, she felt that she had made a great deal of progress. She had offered her mother’s seedlings and gardening tools to Mrs. Pickford, who was glad to have them. She had given Peter’s coat to Mr. Pickford and had packed up some of her father’s clothes for Uncle Harold. Mr. Pickford had told her of another neighbor who might be interested in buying her parents’ car, and she was planning to bicycle over in the morning to discuss it. She had many boxes of clothes and books and other useful items ready for donation to the Red Cross and a few boxes destined for Portobello Road (mostly ornaments and knick-knacks and clothes too strange or out-of-date to donate). She had also set aside a few small personal things belonging to her siblings that she didn't want for herself but that she thought might be meaningful to someone—things like cufflinks, gloves, handkerchiefs, fountain pens. These she was planning to give to Jonathan, Marjorie, and Edmund's friend Nicky, to offer to her siblings' friends as mementos.
She had reluctantly decided to sell most of the furniture. When she went back to London in a couple of days she would try to find a furniture dealer who would take the lot. But she also hoped to find a way to put a few things in storage—a mahogany secretary desk that she had always loved, as well as her mother’s good china, silver, tea service and bed linens. If not, she would have to sell these, too.
She was trying not to keep too many things solely for sentimental reasons, but she was unable to part with Peter's copy of The English Conquest of Normandy, even though she doubted she would ever read it, because the illustration of Henry V on the cover reminded her of Peter the Magnificent. She had taken her father’s complete Shakespeare, a beautiful Murano glass paperweight that Ed had bought while he was in Italy, her mother’s living room carpet, and a Danish Modern lamp that she thought must have been a gift from Alberta (whatever else you had to say about Alberta, she had good taste in that sort of thing). She was planning to bring Lucy’s bicycle back to London eventually, but for the moment it was more useful here. And she wanted to ask Diana before deciding whether to keep her mother’s sewing machine: it might come in extremely handy, but she wasn’t certain they had room for it in the flat.
She still had to go through her mother’s clothes and jewelry, as well as the contents of the kitchen cabinets and her father’s study. She had decided to leave the boxes of Edmund’s and Peter’s letters and papers unopened for the moment. There weren’t very many of them, and she would have plenty of time to go through them later. She had made a rough inventory of what was in the attic: some mothballed clothes, including her parents’ wedding clothes and her brothers' military uniforms, boxes of childhood books and playthings, family photo albums and small heirlooms, a few pieces of broken furniture, and many boxes of what she ruefully classified as “miscellaneous junk.” She would have to deal with these during a later visit.
And she had scarcely wept all day. Surely that was an accomplishment.
Late that afternoon she was sitting at the dining table with a cup of tea, leafing through Peter’s old copy of Kim, which she had been surprised to find he had taken with him to Oxford. He seemed to have reread it recently, because there were a few notes in the margins in what she thought of as his post-war handwriting. She was feeling more relaxed and less anxious than she had in days. Then the bell rang. It was a delivery man with the first load of Professor Kirke's possessions—boxes and boxes of them. She had almost forgotten about them.
The books weren’t the main problem. She had the name of a bookstore in London, Marks and Co., that would send somebody out to look over the professor’s books and her father’s (as well as some of Edmund’s abstruse philosophy books, which Susan had decided not to donate to the Red Cross after all). The bookseller might make an offer to buy the whole lot. But, having found a letter from Lucy tucked into one of Edmund’s books, she wondered if she ought to at least flip through and shake every book to make sure no stray letters had got in there.
Still, it was the letters and papers that really worried her. She fully intended to donate most of them to the British Museum, but before she did that, she had to go through them. All of them, carefully: finding Jonathan's letter had taught her that. Just thinking about it made her anxious. As the boxes arrived, she opened them up and sorted them into categories. The books she stacked up in her father’s study; the letters and papers she stacked in the living room. There were a few boxes of clothes and sundry objects, which she repacked neatly (by now she had learned to go through all the pockets) and added to the growing stacks of boxes in the garage that were going to the Red Cross.
As she looked at the crates piled up in the living room, her courage almost failed her. How long would it take to go through all of it? Would she need to read all of the professor’s manuscripts through, looking for mentions of Narnia? Maybe all she really needed to do was look for anything relating to her own family. She had asked Peggy to see if she could get back any letters that Eustace and her siblings had written to Jill. She had also written to Miss Plummer’s nephew David with a similar request, and had already got a reply saying that he had thrown away all of his aunt’s correspondence (he seemed perplexed at the idea that he might do anything else with it). But the professor had a voluminous correspondence, and going through it promised to be a tedious job.
The next morning after breakfast she cycled over to the neighbor to discuss her parents' car. Then she puttered around the house for a bit and made herself a cup of tea. Finally, she drew a deep breath and opened a box of Professor Kirke’s letters and papers. Within half an hour she knew that the problem was worse than she thought. The letters weren’t tedious at all—they were fascinating, and she kept wanting to stop and read them.
It seemed as though the professor had corresponded with every important classicist and man (or woman) of letters alive during first half of the 20th century. Many, of course, she had never heard of, but nearly half of the letters were from people whose names, at the very least, were familiar. Some of his correspondents were already old when the professor was a young man and belonged more to the Victorian era. And some seemed quite inexplicable. She found a couple of letters from J.B.S. Haldane, who didn’t seem at all the kind of man the professor would have been friendly with: a scientist, a well-known atheist, and a socialist (or possibly a communist, she wasn't sure). As it happened, the letters weren't friendly, but they were very funny, and they gave her the first good laugh she’d had in weeks. One of Haldane’s letters mentioned “Huxley." Sure enough, Susan found an extremely snide letter from Aldous Huxley in the same box. Apparently the professor hadn't much liked Brave New World, and had said so.
The aggravating thing was that the letters were in no order at all. She found two letters from Peter and one from Lucy among letters the professor had received more than a decade earlier. She found some letters from Arthur Conan Doyle, dated 1928, in a box that otherwise contained letters dating from the last two or three years. It seemed that Professor Kirke had tossed letters into whatever box or drawer was handy at the moment. She tried sorting them by date but got hopelessly confused within a very short time. Finally she decided to concentrate on picking out letters from her own family and repacking everything else, but she still kept getting distracted by names she recognized. (Dorothy Sayers? What could she have been writing to the professor about? Dante, as it turned out.) Sometime in the early afternoon she washed the dust off her hands and bolted down some bread and jam in the kitchen before going back to work. She spent all day at it. She was trying to decipher a letter from Hillaire Belloc when Mr. Pickford knocked on the door. She was late for supper and Mrs. Pickford had sent him over to fetch her.
"Oh dear," she said, looking at her hands and clothes, which were covered with dust, "I'm awfully dirty. I couldn't possibly come over like this."
Mr. Pickford laughed. "If you want to have a wash, I'm sure Mrs. Pickford will wait supper for you. But if you don't, she'll send something over. She's worried that you haven't been eating properly."
Susan thought guiltily of the bread and jam, which was all she'd had to eat since breakfast. "Well, if you really think she won't mind waiting a few more minutes, I don't think it will take me long to wash and change my clothes."
"No, no, she won't mind," he said. "But you'll have to tell us what you've been doing to make you look like a coal miner!"
Susan quickly tidied up what she was doing and surveyed the progress so far. She had been working all day and was certainly less than a quarter of the way through the letters. And there were more boxes coming, she knew. She washed as best she could and ate a good supper, making the Pickfords laugh by describing some of the letters she'd been reading. After supper she decided that it would be best to go to bed and make a plan in the morning. She was going back to London the day after tomorrow, and obviously she couldn't get through all of this in one more day.
She went to bed thinking about the professor. Had he really been as important a man as his correspondence seemed to suggest? But if that were true, it seemed odd that so few people had come to his funeral. Well, many of his correspondents were dead, and many were overseas, and of course the war had disrupted a great many relationships. It seemed likely, too, that many of the letters were from people he had never met in person. What an odd way to live! Still, she felt humbled. She had known he was an eminent scholar, but she had always thought of him primarily in connection to Narnia and her family. Here was another person she thought she had known well, but whose life had been largely invisible to her.
The English Conquest of Normandy is a real book, but I don't know what kind of cover illustration it may or may not have had, circa 1924, when it was published.
I wrote the bit about the letters from J.B.S. Haldane before I learned that C.S. Lewis may have based Weston in the Space Trilogy partly on Haldane, and that Haldane wrote a couple of sarcastic critiques of the trilogy and of Lewis's Christian apologetics. I put Haldane in because he seemed so antithetical to Lewis's world (and therefore interestingly incongruous).
Chapter 10: Weightless
21-22 May, 1949
Susan returns to London.
Susan decided not to do any more unpacking and sorting during this trip. Instead, she spent the next day preparing to go back to London. She tided up and made lists. She washed most of the clothes she’d brought with her and hung them to dry, planning to leave them at the house, rather than cart them back and forth. She bicycled over to Marjorie’s house with the small box of Lucy’s things, bringing two of the sketchbooks so she could show Marjorie the drawings of Lucy’s school friends.
As she bicycled back to her parents’ house, she asked herself why she was going home tomorrow, instead of staying here a few more days to do more sorting and packing. There wasn’t anything pressing for her to do in London, no special reason to go back. Then she realized she’d answered her own question: London was home now. She had no other. The thought struck her with such force that she nearly ran the bicycle off the road: her little flat, her friends, Uncle Harold, these were the only things holding her anywhere, and they were tenuous connections compared to the family ties she had once felt. She had thought she was estranged from her family, but they had still provided an anchor. There was now very little to tether her anywhere. She could go to the States, to Italy, to Australia, to India, to Egypt, to Outer Mongolia, to that little town Peggy's boarder kept talking about, Eketahuna, without making a significant hole in anybody’s life, without feeling that she had abandoned anybody. She was weightless. She was free. It was terrifying.
The feeling didn’t last long. She did have friends, people she cared about, people she would miss, people who would miss her. But there was no longer a fixed center to her world.
She boarded the train to London the next day with all of Lucy’s sketchbooks packed into her valise, with jars of applesauce and tinned fruit in a satchel, and with Kim to read in the train, and, in case she finished it, Murder Must Advertise (Ed liked English mysteries as well as French novels). She arrived at the flat and unpacked, but Diana wasn't there, so that afternoon she went to Peggy’s house, bringing two jars of applesauce. She sat in the kitchen and chatted with Peggy and Frances while they fixed supper for their large household, which was not exactly a family, but not exactly not a family, either. For the first time since the accident, it was possible to contemplate the future, and to imagine that one day she might be happy.
Chapter 11: Burn Before Reading
6-12 June, 1949; flashback, April 1946
Susan finds some of Peter's journals.
Susan went back to her parents’ house again during the first week of June. First she unpacked all of the professor’s books, briefly searched each one, and stacked them in tall piles on the floor in her father’s study. She found nothing especially interesting except for a few letters (two from Peter) and a five-pound note, which the professor must have been very sorry to misplace. When she was finished, she took a bath to get rid of the dust. It was amazing how very grimy books and papers could be.
The day after that, a Mr. Doel came from Marks and Co. to look over the books. He was a very pleasant man, and she felt much more comfortable having him in the house than she had Miller. She showed him the two books of the professor’s she had decided to keep for herself: Professor Kirke’s own English translation of Plato’s Republic (apparently the work that had made his reputation), and a beautiful 18th century English edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
“That’s quite a valuable book,” said Mr. Doel, mildly, admiring the Ovid.
“I’ll sell it if I ever have to, I suppose. But for the moment I’d rather hold onto it,” she said. He smiled understandingly.
It took Doel three days to go through all of the books: the professor’s, her father’s, and a few of Edmund’s. He was curious about why she was selling these lots of books from three such different people, and he was quite shocked and sympathetic when she explained. In the end he quoted her individual prices for a few of the most valuable books and a lump sum for the whole lot. She might have been able to get more money if she'd sold the books off individually to different buyers, but it didn't seem worth the effort, especially when she had so much else to manage. She took his offer for the lot.
While he went through the books, she was working her way through the professor’s papers. Marjorie came over one day to help, and later in the week Peggy came up for a day. The same day, the dealer came in to look over the furniture and make an offer. He also sometimes stored furnishings for people and thought they could work out an arrangement to store the things she wanted to keep. And if she decided to sell them after all, he would be happy to take them off her hands. Things were getting done.
The next afternoon she started on the boxes in the attic. The first thing she opened was a trunk of Peter’s, but she didn’t get very far with it, because on top was a package wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, with a note attached: “Please destroy in the event of my death.” She knew that meant that Peter didn’t want anybody to look at it, but she yielded to curiosity and unwrapped it. There were five slim notebooks with dates written on the covers. Apparently they were his journals, dating from January, 1945 to July, 1946. The second notebook, with the dates April-June 1945 written on the cover, simultaneously attracted and repelled her because she knew some of what must be in it.
Peter came home in 1946, a couple of weeks before Easter. It was sudden and unexpected, and the first Susan knew of it was when her mother rang her at school to tell her that Peter was home, months early. They were all hugely relieved, of course; even after the war ended, the continent was a dangerous place.
Susan was the first to arrive home from school. Peter and her parents were waiting for her at the station. He was obviously glad to see her, enveloping her in a bear hug as she got off the train; but she didn’t think his face lit up the way it did half an hour later when Lucy arrived on the next train. Edmund came home the next day, and Peter insisted on going by himself to the station to meet him. After that, Edmund and Peter spent a lot of time alone talking in their room in the attic. Susan felt a bit snubbed, and she was cross with herself for feeling that way. She was distressed by Peter's state of mind. Where was courageous, optimistic, gentlemanly Peter, the man she would have sworn had not a cynical bone in his body? He seemed to have been replaced by someone bitter and foul-mouthed (though, to be fair, not nearly as foul-mouthed as most returning soldiers).
When Peter heard that Edmund was planning to enlist in a few months, as soon as he turned 16, he tried to talk Ed out of it. “There is nothing glorious or honorable about this kind of warfare. Or this kind of military,” he said. This was ironic, since Peter had wanted to leave school early to enlist, but Father wouldn’t allow it. Peter had to wait until he was called up when he turned 18, in January of 1945. By the time he finished his military training and was sent to the continent, it was clear that the war would soon be over. He saw two months of action before VE day and then spent some months with the occupation forces in Germany.
Susan knew that Peter must have seen some terrible things, but he didn’t want to talk about them, and she didn’t pry. Still, she was curious. She wanted to understand what the war had done to her brother. He had plenty of experience with war, but clearly this was something different.
One afternoon, Mother sent Susan up to the attic to fetch Edmund. She could hear her brothers’ voices as she climbed the stairs. The door of their room was closed, although it was a warm day and quite stifling in the attic. When she knocked, they stopped talking abruptly. Ed opened the door. Peter was lying on his back on his bed, one arm half covering his face.
“Mother wants you downstairs, Ed,” Susan said. Peter didn’t move as Ed came out onto the stair, shutting the door behind him. They started down. “What were you talking about?” she asked.
“You don’t want to know, Su,” said Ed.
“Whereas you, at the advanced age of 15, are able to manage! Ed, you know I’m not some sort of delicate flower,” she said.
Ed stopped on the stair, hesitated a moment, and then said, “We were talking about Bergen-Belsen.”
Susan stared at him in horror. “Oh my God, was Peter there? He never said. Not in any of his letters.”
“Well, it’s not the kind of thing you like to put in a letter, I suppose.”
“No, I suppose not...Do Mother and Father know?”
“I don’t think so. He hasn’t said anything to them.”
“I couldn’t even bear to look at the pictures in the newspaper…” she said guiltily.
“I know. Neither could I. He says… even after they liberated the camp, people kept dying and dying. There was nothing they could do for them, they were sick and starving...And you know Peter, the one thing he can't stand is to be helpless.”
“Yes, I know...”
"It sounds like hell, just...hell. And I doubt he's told me the worst bits. Don’t ask him about it, Su. If he wants to tell you anything, he will.”
So Susan didn’t ask.
Susan looked at the notebooks in her hand. Peter didn’t want anybody to read these, she reminded herself. She wrapped them back up. She wouldn’t read them, but she couldn’t bring herself to destroy them, either.
I feel compelled to point out that Anthony Hopkins has portrayed both Frank Doel (in 84 Charing Cross Road) and C.S. Lewis (in Shadowlands.)
Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops in April, 1945. Suffice it to say that conditions were horrific, and since it was one of the first camps to be liberated, the liberators were almost completely unprepared for what they found. They did what they could, but by some estimates more than half the people alive when the camp was liberated died during the next two months of disease, starvation, and malnutrition.
Chapter 12: Ageless
22 June, 1949
Susan discusses her siblings with Diana.
“I feel like such a snoop, reading Ed’s journal,” said Susan. “But it’s his fault for making it so entertaining.”
Diana smiled. “Oh? Do tell.”
“I wonder if this American nurse he met in Italy knew that he was barely 17. She was a divorcée, she must have been several years older, at least!” Susan shook her head ruefully.
“Well, but he always seemed older than his age. Both of your brothers did, but in different ways.”
Susan looked up. “Really?”
“Well…yes. I mean, I didn’t know either of them well, but when I met Peter he must have been about 15, and he already seemed like a grown man in a lot of ways. It wasn’t that he was deadly serious or anything, but he wasn’t amused by the kind of things most boys think are funny….He had a rather adult manner, but it seemed natural, not put on. You know how boys who are trying to seem older can be so pompous, but he wasn't like that at all. And he had such lovely manners!“
“Really? Didn’t you tell me once that you wished Peter wasn’t always such a gentleman?”
“No! That was Pamela! What do you take me for?…Besides, I was never able to get him to take me out.”
“Oh. Sorry to misjudge you...”
“I wonder how Pamela managed it.”
“Persistence. And cunning. I don’t think he liked her much, but after a while she cornered him and he couldn't say no.”
“I would never stoop so low.”
“I'm glad to hear it.”
“Besides, I always thought Edmund had more sex appeal.”
"Cradle robber! Diana, you shock me..."
Diana shrugged. "As I said, he always seemed older than his age."
“Well, judging by his journal, apparently you’re not alone. But I don’t understand it.”
“You’re his sister, you’re not supposed to understand it. In any case, I swear I never did more than bat my eyes at him a few times.”
Susan sighed. "It does seem odd to be talking about them like this...."
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to upset you."
"I was the one who brought it up."
Diana nodded. "Whatever happened to Edmund's girlfriend? Miranda, or whatever her name was..."
"What, the harpy who came to the funeral? I haven't heard from her in a couple of weeks, thank God! She probably got bored with the drama of being bereaved."
Susan opened the journal and read on, and a little while later she sighed heavily. "Oh Ed..." she said, shutting the journal again and shaking her head. "Honestly, he had a genius for finding women who would hurt him...I think I'll put this away for a while."
"Why are you reading his journal?"
"Oh...I keep finding things that make me wonder if I ever knew any of them very well. Ed was always a bit of a puzzle, anyway. I'm just...trying to understand him. And the journals and sketches, they're all that's left."
"Everybody's a bit of an enigma, really. After my brother was killed I found out some things about him that I never would have guessed. Nothing too shocking, but I'd always thought of him as a bit cocksure, and he turned out to have been worried about all sorts of things...."
"Yes, that's true. Peter always seemed so straight-forward, but there's a lot about him I didn't know." She sighed. "You know, before the war I don't think Peter had ever felt much in the way of self-doubt. Ed was made of self-doubt, but I think in some ways that made it easier for him to get by. He wasn't so distressed by the difference between his ideals and reality. But then, looking at this, I think he and Peter were in completely different wars. Ed was really in what they call the cold war..."
"Where was he, exactly?"
"Trieste. The bit of Italy right next to Yugoslavia."
"You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
"No. Sorry. But I can tell you all about Partition if you like."
"Maybe later." Susan got up and put the journal back in the box of Edmund's things. “What about Lucy?" she asked. "Did she seem older?”
“Oh, she never seemed to be any particular age. It was strange. Every time I saw her, she seemed either younger or older than I remembered…Or both, at the same time.”
“How odd...But I can understand how she might seem that way.”
“And then I’d sort of shake my head and look at her, and think 'That's right, it’s Lucy, how could I have forgotten what she's like?' "
“And what about me? Older, younger, or ageless?” Susan asked.
"Not a fair question," said Diana. "I'm too used to you now, anyway."
"But do you remember what you thought when we first met?"
"Not really. When was it, autumn of '42? I suppose I did think of you as sophisticated, but then we were all putting it on a bit, new girls at a new school, jockeying for position, establishing our roles. In a way it's just about the worst time to find out what someone is really like."
"Yes, you were quite determined to convince people you were a wit."
"Was I? How embarrassing...."
"People always used to tell me that I was very mature for my age. I was never sure what they meant."
Diana looked at her critically. "I suppose it wouldn't do for me to say that you've a beauty that is ageless."
"It wouldn't answer the question."
"I know, but it's a hard question to answer. We've been friends too long. I know the way people describe you: elegant and regal and so forth. And you are, but I think that misses a lot...God, I remember some friend of your father's, right after the funeral in Wingrave, going on about how beautiful and regal you were in your grief. I wanted to hit him!"
"Ugh. I'm glad you didn't tell me about it at the time. Hard enough to hold myself together without having to listen to bosh like that..."
"That's what friends are for."
Chapter 13: Wedding clothes
29 June, 1949
Father’s wedding suit was out of fashion, but it didn’t look ridiculous: it was a conservative black suit. If you saw a man wearing it at a party you would know it wasn’t modish, but you wouldn’t necessarily know when it had been made, not unless you were a real fashion expert.
Mother’s wedding dress, on the other hand, screamed “1925”: the straight silhouette, the dropped waist, the layered skirt, and that bizarre cloche veil. No beads or fringe, but even so, it was about as far from the New Look as you could get. Susan wondered what she could possibly do with it. Nobody else would want it, except perhaps a theatrical costumer. There were really only two alternatives: keep it, or cut it up and reuse the fabric. Obviously, she had to keep it. She sighed.
Chapter 14: Anger
12 July, 1949
Another death in the family.
The telephone rang in the middle of supper. Susan sometimes wished she’d never had it put in, but when people rang at this hour it was generally something important, so she put down her fork and picked up the phone.
“Yes?” she said, peremptorily.
Susan didn’t immediately recognize the voice. Then she said “Uncle Harold? Is something wrong?” There was no answer, and she started to feel a sense of dread. “Uncle Harold, what’s wrong?”
“Alberta’s hanged herself,” he said.
“Oh my God!” For a moment, Susan couldn't speak. Her mouth was dry, and she swallowed to try to moisten it. “Is she…I mean, I know sometimes it doesn’t…doesn't work...”
“She’s dead,” he said.
“Oh, Uncle Harold, how awful. When…where….?”
“I found her when I came home from work,” he said. “In our bedroom.”
Susan drew in a sharp breath, and then before she could stop herself, she burst out, “That bitch! How could she do that to you?”
Uncle Harold was silent, and Susan worried that he might have rung off.
"Uncle Harold, I—"
“Please, Susan,” he said hoarsely, “you don’t understand…”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I truly am...I know I shouldn't have said that, I'm dreadfully sorry, but...it’s just so awful…"
"Yes, it's quite...quite awful..." he said, and then trailed off.
"Are you alone?” she asked.
“The police are here. There will have to be an inquest.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Oh…no, I see what you mean…” He sounded so foggy.
“I’m coming up there as soon as I can, but I may not be able to get a train tonight. Will you please find a friend or a neighbor to stay with you until I can get there?”
“Oh...yes…I’ll go ask Lawrence next door…”
“All right. But I want you to ring me, or have him ring me, after you’ve talked to him. You’re not to stay alone in that house tonight!”
After they rang off, Diana, who had been sitting at the table the whole time, asked anxiously, “What’s happened?”
“My aunt’s killed herself,” said Susan, “and left her body in the bedroom for my uncle to find!" For some reason, Alberta choosing to hang herself in their bedroom struck Susan as a deliberate attack on Harold.
“Oh no!” said Diana. “God, how awful…”
"That bitch! That cow!" Susan raged. "How could she do that to him, after everything he’s done for her?…After everything he's put up with all these years!”
"Poor man," said Diana, "He's lost his son, and now his wife..."
"Not that she's any great loss," said Susan bitterly, "but he loves her, all the same. Better than she deserves...." Deserved. One more person to think of in the past tense. An angry tear rolled down her cheek.
A few minutes later Uncle Harold’s neighbor rang and said that he had persuaded Harold to stay next door for the night. Susan had looked at the train schedule and told him which train she was taking to Cambridge in the morning. “God damn that woman,” she said. “God damn her to hell…” The neighbor seemed to share her opinion. Susan rang off and went to pack her valise.
I feel as though some explanations may be in order.
About a mile from my house there is a railway crossing. A few years ago, over a period of about 18 months, four teenagers killed themselves by stepping in front of trains at that crossing. As you may imagine, I think about this every time I drive through the intersection (which I avoid doing as much as possible). One of the things I think about is the people who were forced to witness these suicides, especially the person driving the train, who could do nothing to stop it (a train can't stop on a dime). Suicidal people generally aren't thinking of how their actions will affect others. They're in so much pain that they can't even see the people around them clearly. But survivors are often angry, and in some cases there is justice to their anger.
So...I intended Alberta's suicide and Susan's reaction to it to be shocking, but I hope Susan's behavior here doesn't seem too ignoble. It's a reaction to what she sees as an attack on her uncle, of whom, at this point in the story, she is fiercely protective.
Chapter 15: After Alberta
13-23 July, 1949
Susan had never been fond of her aunt, and she couldn't help but see Alberta's death mainly in terms of its effect on her uncle. She found it hard to understand how or why, but Harold had loved his wife deeply. More to the point, his life had revolved around her for 18 years. When Susan arrived in Cambridge Harold was virtually speechless with shock and grief, and she realized that the imperative of taking care of Alberta must have been holding him together. Eustace's death might have been devastating, but he hadn't yielded to his grief because Alberta needed him. Now she didn't need him any more.
Susan deposited her valise in Eustace's old room and made up the bed in the spare room for her uncle. She stared at the painting hanging on the wall, the one that Lucy said had come alive seven years ago, drawing her and Edmund and Eustace into Narnia. For the first time in many years, Susan wanted to go to Narnia again, even if all her old friends were long dead, even if she had to go on her own. But the painting remained lifeless.
Uncle Harold certainly wasn't up to arranging the memorial, so the job fell to Susan. Fortunately, during one of her periods of energetic organizing, Alberta had written up very specific instructions about what was to be done in the event of her death, down to the music to be played at the memorial, the type of food to be served, and a list of people to be invited. As though it were a sort of party. The list was a few years old, so Susan showed it to Uncle Harold and asked if there was anybody else he wanted to add to it. He shrugged. Susan rang Alberta's friend Hermione, who suggested a few more names. Jill's parents were on the list, so Susan sent them a note telling them about Alberta's death and about the memorial, but she didn't expect them to come.
At the memorial people talked about what a brilliant woman Alberta had been: passionate, exciting, inspiring, full of energy and zeal. Susan had seen enough of Alberta during her better moments to recognize the truth of this portrait. The partial truth. Nobody mentioned Alberta's other side—judgmental, unforgiving, inflexible, insensitive—but there were some veiled references to the torments she suffered when she slid into a depression. Susan didn't doubt that Alberta had suffered greatly. Unfortunately, when she suffered, so did everybody around her.
Susan stayed on for a week after the memorial, feeding her uncle, taking care of him, and arranging a sort of rota so that his friends could look after him when she went back to London. She began to understand how attending to the job of looking after Alberta had helped Uncle Harold to endure the loss of Eustace.
It wasn't until after Susan went back to London that it occurred to her (because of course Uncle Harold hadn't mentioned it) that the day Alberta had chosen to hang herself was Harold's 40th birthday.
Chapter 16: Beckfoot
9 August, 1949
Susan visits the lake.
Susan sat half asleep in a deck chair on the lawn at Beckfoot. It was lovely weather: warm, but with a good breeze. She could hear voices and the creak of the oars as Peggy and Richard rowed down the river from the boathouse toward the lake.
"...oh, and was that an order? Who's the captain of this ship?" asked Richard.
"I am, as long as Nancy's not here," said Peggy. Richard laughed.
Susan opened her eyes. Peggy and Richard were raising the sail, but Richard kept trying to kiss his wife, which rather hindered their progress.
"Belay that!" Peggy said sternly, but she looked as though she was having a hard time keeping a straight face. Once the sail was raised and Peggy was at the tiller she blew Richard a kiss.
They're friends, Susan thought. How funny. She watched them begin to sail up the lake on the port tack. At least, she thought it was the port tack. She'd been sailing a few times, but she really knew next to nothing about it. It was a bit intimidating how much Peggy and her friends knew about boats. But they didn't seem to think less of her for being a novice, as long as she was ready to learn.
"Are you going to laze around in that chair all morning, Susie?" It was Peggy's friend Mavis, who was sitting next to her in the grass. Susan hadn't even known she was there—she must have crept up very quietly. Mavis and Mrs. Blackett had decided that Susan should henceforth be called Susie to distinguish her from Mavis's sister Susan, who was coming up next week with her family to stay at Holly Howe, across the lake. Nobody had ever called her Susie before. She supposed that if she asked them to, they would call her Su, which was the nickname her own family always used. But she rather liked Susie. It was new, and it seemed friendly.
"Peggy and Richard wanted to go out sailing on their own this morning, but she said she'd give me a sailing lesson this afternoon, if the wind's right," said Susan.
"Well, then you have the morning to do something else," said Mavis.
"I have a book," Susan protested, holding it up.
"But you're not reading it—oh, is that one of Dorothea's?"
Susan looked at the name on the cover: Dorothea Dudgeon. "Yes. There were three of her books on the shelf in my room. I read a couple of chapters after we got in last night, it's quite good so far. Do you know her?"
"Yes, of course. She was one of our old crowd. We were all up here together every summer for years."
"Was she a Swallow or an Amazon?"
Mavis laughed. "Peggy's filled you in, I see. But it sounds as though she's left out Dot and her brother, Dick. They were the D's. They had a ship, but that was later, so we never really called them after it...Besides which, I think it was only Dick who really wanted to be called a Scarab...That's a kind of beetle....Did you know that Peggy was planning to try to fix you up with Dick?"
"Well, it doesn't matter because I got a letter from Dot a couple of weeks ago saying that Dick's gone and got himself engaged to a lady scientist he met while he was out birdwatching. Sounds like a match made in heaven. Peggy was fit to be tied when I told her."
"It's just as well. I'm not interested in anything like that right now, anyway."
"Then I suppose the only one who's disappointed is Peggy. And now we're just about out of unattached men from our old cohort, so if she wants to fix you up with someone she'll have to look elsewhere."
"This sounds like a rather large group of friends you had," said Susan. "You'll have to forgive me if I can't keep them all straight."
"Well, there's a great deal of lore," said Mavis, sighing. "Years of it. And we're all still friends, but it's not the same. The last time we were all up here together was the summer of 1946, and that took some doing to arrange. We'd all made it through the war alive, and more or less unscathed! It seemed like a miracle. We had to celebrate. But I don't know if we'll ever manage it again, we're all so scattered now."
Susan nodded. Peter had come home from the war unscathed, physically anyway. Much good it had done him. But she was here to get away from all that.
"Which one of Dot's books do you have there?" Mavis asked.
"That's a good one. They're all good, really. She has one coming out in a few months that her publisher thinks ought to sell really well, about the little ships of Dunkirk. John's already read it, because she wanted him to make sure she had all the sea combat bits absolutely right, and he says it's the best thing she's ever written. Dot thinks if it sells really well she might finally be able to convince them to publish Outlaw of the Broads," said Mavis.
There was a shout from the lawn near the side of the house: "Mummy!"
Mavis turned her head and grinned. A two-year-old boy was toddling energetically down the lawn toward them, carrying a soft toy rabbit. Mavis jumped up, trotted over to him, and took his hand, leading him back to the deck chair. "Teddy, you were supposed to be taking a nap. How did you escape? "
"Climbed out," he said. " 'Nen I walk downa stair."
"A daring plan, stunning in its simplicity," Mavis said. "Well, my son, we shall feast you royally and you will tell us thrilling and gruesome tales of your captivity amongst the Natives!"
"Natives," agreed the boy.
Mavis sat down in the grass next to Susan's chair, with her son on her lap. "Properly speaking I suppose I ought to be a Native myself, now," she said, "but until somebody makes me be one, I think I'll be...something else. Almost anything else."
Susan smiled and waggled her fingers at the little boy, but he seemed to be occupied with his rabbit. "Peggy explained to me about the Natives. She said you used to pretend to be all sorts of things."
"Pirates and explorers, mostly. Mountain climbers, gold miners...Picts...outlaws...." said Mavis, smiling dreamily.
"Did you ever pretend to be kings and queens?"
"I don't think so," said Mavis, sounding rather puzzled. "It doesn't sound like very much fun. Sitting on a throne, making laws and things. I suppose one could behead people..."
"Parties and balls," suggested Susan, "Court intrigues. Wars...."
"I'm not as fond of wars as I used to be," Mavis admitted.
"Well then, how about a kingdom with fantastical creatures? Centaurs and giants. Talking beasts. Things like that."
"I don't know," said Mavis, "That sounds more interesting, but I mostly used to like things to be like real life, only better. And besides, you wouldn't have to be a queen to have that. You could be a talking animal or a centaur yourself. That sounds like more fun."
"Yes, it does, doesn't it," said Susan, a little surprised.
They chatted for a while. Around noon Mavis sighted the white sail of the Amazon as it came racing up the lake with the wind. "Must be almost time for lunch," she said. She took her son inside and Susan picked up her book again. It was very good, and now that she knew that the author was a friend of her hosts she was relieved that she could honestly say she was enjoying it. But she only had time to read a few pages before the Amazon arrived at the little jetty at the foot of the lawn. Peggy and Richard had decided to tie up the boat there, since they were going to take it out again after lunch.
Richard went back up to the house ("Somebody splashed me, and I'd rather eat lunch wearing a dry shirt"), but Peggy flopped down on the grass next to Susan. "I thought I saw Titty sitting out here with you," Peggy said.
"Who?" asked Susan.
"Mavis, I mean. She used to be Titty, but she hasn't been called that in about five years—some stupid American soldiers spoiled the name for her...idiots!" Peggy sighed. "So she went back to her given name, Mavis. Sometimes I still forget, especially when we're up here."
"Oh. Yes, she went inside a little while ago. We had a nice chat. She said you know the woman who wrote the book I'm reading."
Peggy glanced at the book. "Yes, I hope you're liking it. So far all the books she's had published are mysteries, but she writes all sorts of things. Very versatile, our Dot."
"Well, this one's very good. I've been reading a lot of mysteries lately. It seems a bit odd, you'd think I wouldn't want to read about anything to do with death. I suppose it's because in mysteries everything comes right in the end, usually. The guilty are caught and punished."
"I know a few mysteries you shouldn't read, then," said Peggy, sighing, "but you can't go wrong with Dot's. You're in very good hands."
"Good, because there are several of her books in my room! But I think I've sat around reading long enough. Is the wind right for a sailing lesson?"
"It ought to be. We can go out after lunch."
"Do you suppose there's time for me to go for a swim before lunch? I was talking to Mavis, and then I got interested in my book, but I just realized that if I'm going to have a swim, I ought to do it before we eat."
"Lunch is usually at 1:00, so you've half an hour, at least. And you'll need time to change, but nobody will mind if you come to the table with your hair still wet."
"Good!" said Susan, and stood up. She took off the robe she was wearing over her swimsuit and threw it on the deck chair. "Is it safe to dive from the jetty?"
"Should be. There's been plenty of rain this year, so it ought to be deep enough."
Susan smiled, the first really natural smile Peggy had ever seen from her, and ran down to the end of the jetty. Without breaking stride, she dove into the water. A moment later she surfaced and called out, "It's not bad at all. Not too cold!"
"Good! Nice dive!"
"Thanks! I'm going to warm up a little and then swim out to that big rock and back," she said.
Peggy watched Susan warm up and start swimming out to the rock. Peggy wasn't sure which rock she meant, but it looked like she was planning to swim halfway across the lake. Mavis came out onto the lawn again and sat next to her on the grass. "She's fast," she said.
"She was in the Olympics."
"Gosh. No wonder she's good! She must know Cathy Gibson, then...Does she know Bond and Morris, or any of the rowers? We were so proud of them..."
"I don't know. I met her the day she found out her whole family was killed, so in some ways I feel like I know her really well, and in some ways not at all. I wonder what she's like when she's happy...or just normal...But she's doing amazingly well, considering everything. If only she'd eat! She must've lost at least a stone since we met..."
"The food's so good up here, that ought to encourage her."
"Everything's good up here."
How Dot became Dorothea Dudgeon.
1948 Olympics lore: All three of the gold medals Britain won at the Games that year were in rowing and sailing events, something the Swallows and Amazons would surely have been aware of, even though apparently there wasn't much about it in the British press at the time. David Bond and Stewart Morris won the gold medal in the Swallow class sailing event, and pairs of British rowers won the coxless pairs and double sculls. Cathy Gibson won a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle, the only British swimmer to win a medal. She was 17.
I've been trying to figure out why I wanted Susan Pevensie to meet and become friends with Peggy Blackett, and I think I have a partial explanation, which is that it seems to me that Susan would have been happier in the Swallows and Amazons books.
Up to now, the extent of the Swallows and Amazons crossover here has been Peggy as a supporting character. This is my first attempt at something that could really be called Swallows and Amazons fic. I don't know the Swallows and Amazons books as well as the Narnia books, so I'm a little nervous about it (she said, sheepishly).
Chapter 17: Sailing Lesson
9 August, 1949
After lunch Peggy took Susan out for a sailing lesson. “I’ll take you to Wildcat Island,” she said. “I have to go there anyway, I have a delivery to make.”
“What kind of delivery?”
“Firewood. Richard and I collected it this morning,” Peggy said, pointing at a tarp covering something stowed amidships.
First Peggy showed Susan the rigging, making sure she knew what everything was called and what it was for. They raised the sail, lowered it, and raised it again. “The main thing is to know to duck when the boom swings over," Peggy said. "A clout on the head is about the worst that can happen in weather like this. Of course, I oughtn't to say that, it's just begging for trouble. But even if we capsize the boat, I know you can swim! Anyway, the best way to learn is by doing." So they sailed north with the wind to the head of the lake, then turned and tacked back up past Beckfoot. They passed west of the archipelago that surrounded the little tourist town on the other side of the lake. As they sailed around Wildcat Island, Peggy showed Susan the harbor, but they didn’t land there. Instead they continued around to the little beach on the east side of the island to drop off the load of firewood in preparation for a camping trip with the children next week. After stacking the firewood neatly by the old campsite and covering it with the tarp, they sat on the beach and watched the ripples on the water that passed for waves.
“It’s so peaceful here,” said Susan.
Peggy laughed. “When I was 12, it would have horrified me to hear you say that! All I wanted was adventure, excitement. But yes, now it feels like a haven.”
“What kind of haven?”
“Oh, from everything that’s happened since then. The war, of course. Growing up.” She sighed. “Three years ago was our big reunion. Just about everybody had a baby or was pregnant…We brought the children out here, the ones that were old enough. Dorothea’s two oldest, and Susan’s. Not to camp, mind you, they were still so little. I thought at first it was a mistake—I thought they ought to be allowed to camp on the island themselves, in a few years, when they’re big enough to go on their own. But later I realized it was all right: this is our place, and they’ll find their own places eventually. Maybe here at the lake, maybe someplace else. It’s better that way.“
“Did Jill ever come up here?” Susan asked.
“Yes, a few times. She was here for two weeks that summer.”
“She must’ve loved it.”
“Yes, I think she did. And it was wonderful to have her. Mind you, Richard and I have been married three and a half years, and I didn’t meet any of his family until just before we married. After that I only was with Jill for a few days or at most a couple of weeks at a time, three or four times a year, so it’s not as though we were very close. But I liked her.”
“I knew her longer, but I didn’t know her well,” Susan said. “I wasn’t even sure whether she was Eustace’s girlfriend or not.”
“You’re not alone there—that’s what everybody wanted to know! Sometimes I thought they were and then sometimes it seemed obvious that they weren’t. All I’d be willing to swear to is that there wasn’t anything official. Jill wasn’t very forthcoming with her family. More with Richard than with anybody else, but not even very much with him. I suppose now we’ll never know, unless there’s something in their letters—by the way, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get those for you. Richard’s parents are being odd about it, as usual.”
“Well, thank you for trying. I don’t suppose it matters that much, really.”
“I’ll have another go, just the same. Mind you, I can understand them not wanting to give up Eustace’s letters to you. If they were going to give them to anybody I suppose it would be your uncle, but he hasn’t asked for them. But why they should care about holding on to your siblings’ letters is beyond me. Such a funny family…All secrets and back-stabbing and snide insinuations. Richard says he’s lucky I agreed to marry him before I met his parents, or I might have run away screaming.”
“That bad, eh?”
“Oh yes. It’s amazing that they managed to produce such wonderful children, though when you get the whole family together it’s madness…Honestly, I hardly recognize Richard when he’s with his parents, he becomes horribly brittle and sarcastic. And then of course his parents think I’m dreadful, but they do try to tolerate me, in the best long-suffering fashion.”
“Oh no, what about you could they possibly object to?”
“I’m too commonplace and ordinary, you see. Middle class. I should be well-educated and witty and aristocratic, with lots of connections to powerful, famous people, or else an artist, or else colorful and working class, but well-spoken, because then they could trot me out to show people how broad-minded they are, don’t you know.”
“They sound horrible. I’d no idea.”
“No reason you should. But I do feel for Jill, so much younger than the others, living at home all those years without any brothers or sisters to act as a buffer.”
They sat for a while, quietly. Susan had the impression that Peggy was sad about something, but if so, she didn’t say anything to indicate what it was.
Eventually they set off again. They passed the mouth of a bay on the east side of the lake, and Susan could see a houseboat moored near the shore. It looked deserted. “That’s my uncle’s houseboat,” Peggy said. “He isn’t here this summer, so there’s no point in stopping. You’d think at his age he’d be ready to settle in one place, but no, as soon as the war ended, he was off again…”
“I’d like to travel someday. All sorts of places. I’ve only been to Ireland and the States. And Ireland was so long ago, I barely remember it.”
“That’s why I like taking foreign students for boarders. Someday we’ll travel, I suppose, but for now we let the world come to us.” She sighed. “You’re doing well. Do you want to try a hand at the tiller?”
“Can I try tomorrow?” Susan said.
Peggy laughed. “It’s really not that difficult, and I’m right here. If anything goes wrong, I can take over,” she said. “You know how to swim straight even when the wind and the current are pushing you off course. It’s the same thing, really.” So Susan sat down at the tiller and tried her best. As she suspected, it was harder than it looked, but Peggy said she was doing fine.
When they got back to Beckfoot they sailed up the river to the boathouse and then lowered the sail and put the little ship in its berth.
“No disasters!” said Susan.
“No disasters,” Peggy agreed. “Not that I thought there would be any.”
As they walked across the lawn toward the house, Mavis came to meet them, smiling broadly. “Nancy’s got a week’s leave,” she said. “Your mother just got the letter. She’ll be here on Saturday.”
Peggy gave a whoop. “Fantastic! She’ll be here for the camping trip!” she said.
Susan felt a shock that ought to feel familiar by now, but did not: she didn’t have a sister any more. Lucy was gone. For a second, she thought she might break down, but she managed to put on a wooden smile and excuse herself. She went decorously into the house and up to her room. Peggy had been so good to her, it was ridiculous to begrudge her having a sister. She scolded herself for being an ungrateful wretch.
Chapter 18: Nostalgia
9-10 August, 1949
Better to forget or remember? And a little more Swallows and Amazons gossip.
Before supper, Peggy knocked on Susan’s door. “Are you all right, Susie?”
Susan got up and opened the door. “Oh yes, I’m fine. I hope I didn’t seem upset just now.”
“Most people probably wouldn’t think so, but I’ve seen that look on your face before. I’m sorry, I ought to have realized how you might feel…”
“Oh, please don’t apologize for being happy about seeing your sister!” said Susan. “I never know what’s going to set me off. If I asked you to avoid any subject that might upset me, we couldn’t talk about anything except…well, I don’t know what we could talk about. I’d hate to think that you’re walking on eggshells whenever I’m around.”
Peggy looked at her searchingly, then said, “Fair enough. Are you coming down? Teddy’s had his supper, and I think we’ll be having ours soon.”
It was a warm, breezy evening, and after supper they went outside again to sit on the little terrace overlooking the lawn. Mrs. Blackett started yawning and went to bed at 9:00, but Peggy, Richard, Susan, and Mavis sat outside in the long summer twilight.
“When Nancy gets here there’ll be no more sitting around, so you should relax while you can!” said Peggy.
Susan pictured a no-nonsense drill mistress with a stentorian voice and no tolerance for slack. When Peggy saw the look on her face she laughed. “No, no, whatever you’re imagining, it’s not like that. It’s just that Nancy makes things happen. It’s possible to resist and go your own way, but it takes a very strong will.”
They sat watching the lake as the light faded and the mist rose. Susan wondered what it would have been like to grow up here. Or to grow up in any one place. Her own family had moved around a great deal, without ever going anywhere: Susan was born in London, then the family moved to Cambridge for a while, then back to London, followed by evacuation, and—pushing away the thought of Narnia—Bletchley, and finally Wingrave. And of course during many of those years she had spent more time at boarding school than at home. She had been in her flat in London for nearly three years now. The place she had lived the longest, that she knew best, that felt the most like home, was the one place that she knew she could never go again. She wasn't just rootless; she was like a plant that had been ripped away from its roots.
Peggy and Mavis were talking quietly about their friends and family, the people they had known for years. As Mavis had said, they were all scattered now: from their conversation, Susan gleaned that Mavis’s older brother was in the navy, her younger brother was in France, and her younger sister had just finished university and was spending a year traveling around America with a friend. Mavis’s elder sister, who lived somewhere in the midlands, would be here with her family in a few days. Their writer friend lived in Norfolk, and her brother, the one Mavis said Peggy had wanted to fix Susan up with, had recently come back from a year-long fellowship at the University of California. Mavis herself had just returned from Australia. But this place—Beckfoot, the lake—seemed to draw all of them back, even the ones who hadn’t grown up here.
Peggy laughed at something Mavis had said. “You did it just then, you sounded exactly like your mother! Most of the time you sound like your old self, but every once in a while I hear the Aussie twang.”
“David said I sounded like a native after six months, but I started reverting to my old ways as soon as we got back here. Apparently I’m very impressionable,” said Mavis.
“Is your mother Australian?” Susan asked.
“Yes, but she’s lived in England so long, she doesn’t sound very Australian any more,” said Mavis. “When my father retired a couple of years ago, they thought about going to live there. But I think they’ve decided to stay in Britain, since most of their grandchildren are here. Susan and Gil seem quite settled, and now David and I are here again.”
“How long were you in Australia?” Susan asked.
“Nearly two years. But if David is happy at Birkbeck we’ll stay in London, for a while, at least.”
“It’ll be gorgeous to have you so close!” said Peggy. “And I can look after Teddy sometimes when you’re busy painting.”
There was a short silence, during which Susan considered, as she had many times over the past months, the fact that Peggy and Richard hadn’t had a baby yet. As she got to know Peggy better, she had become increasingly convinced that it wasn’t by choice, but she couldn’t see a way to ask her about it.
“Did you say your father was in the navy?” Susan asked, partly to change the subject and partly because she had been planning to ask anyway. Mavis nodded. “Then you must have moved around quite a lot,” Susan said.
“Not as much as you might think. Daddy was at sea a lot of the time, and my parents decided it didn’t make sense to keep moving us around from port to port. But that meant that we didn’t see much of him for a few years. Poor Mother, she must have missed him awfully, though she never complained, not that I can remember anyway…Gosh, I’ve been up here two weeks, it’s the longest David and I have been apart since we’ve been married, and it feels like an age.” Mavis sighed. “Oh well, I got a letter from him this morning,” she added. “He’s finally got the flat settled and is moving our things in, so he ought to be here by Friday, at the latest.”
“By the end of the week we’ll be full up,” said Peggy, with satisfaction. “And then Monday we’ll have Susan and Gil and their brood across the lake. It'll be almost like old times.”
Richard had been in a quiet mood, and Susan had almost forgotten he was there, but now his voice floated out of the dark: “Old times. Poignant nostalgia for the golden days of childhood…All in the golden afternoon full leisurely we glide; for both our oars, with little skill, by little arms are plied, while little hands make vain pretense our wanderings to guide,” he declaimed. “No, no, that's not right, no poor seamanship in this family…”
“Oh dear, he’s begun to quote,” Peggy said, sounding half annoyed, half amused.
“There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away, nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry—”
“What is that?”
“Emily Dickinson. American poetess.”
“I know who she is, I just didn’t recognize the poem.”
“Sorry to doubt you. How about this one: Better by far you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad,” he said. “But that’s probably just my envy of your happy childhood speaking.”
“It wasn’t all happy!” Peggy protested.
“All the parts you talk about are. But if you prefer, I’ll continue the nautical theme: When the cabin port-holes are dark and green because of the seas outside; when the ship goes wop (with a wiggle between)—No, that's not it, either, no wopping or wiggling with any of you at the helm. And I’m sure none of you would ever be so foolish as to put to sea in a sieve…”
“ ‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land, ‘this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.’ In the afternoon they came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon....And here we are, back in the afternoon again, but this isn’t such a pleasant afternoon as the other one, even with better seamanship…”
“Stop showing off.”
“That’s not showing off. The Odyssey in the original would be showing off, but that’s beyond me, alas.”
“Thank heaven for that. Time for bed, Richard.”
“My bed is like a little boat. Nurse helps me in when I embark….”
“He hasn’t had a drop, he’s just like this sometimes,” said Peggy. “On the other hand, if he never did this, he would scarcely speak at all. Come along, darling.” Peggy pulled Richard to his feet and they ambled into the house. His limp, which was usually barely in evidence (Susan hadn’t even noticed it until the third or fourth time they met), now seemed quite pronounced. As they went inside, Richard was beginning “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
“You elegant fowl,” said Peggy. The door closed behind them.
“Well!” said Mavis, and she and Susan laughed.
Mavis and Susan sat together for a while, talking about Australia. Mavis and her husband had done some traveling around the coast and in the bush, but they had spent most of their time in Sydney, where David’s sisters and widowed mother lived.
“I’ve an aunt in Sydney, but I know better than to ask if you’ve met her,” said Susan.
“Well, I may have,” Mavis said, but when Susan told her the name, it didn’t ring a bell. After a while Mavis said good night and went inside.
Susan lay down in the cool grass. The house was quiet, and all the windows were dark. The sky had turned cloudy, but what stars she could see were very bright. She closed her eyes and held her breath for a moment. She could hear the soft rush of the river and the lapping of the waves on the lakeshore. There was a slight rustling of leaves in the gentle wind. She felt empty, open to the night. Right now, just at this moment, she could bear it, because she was here now, and neither the past nor the future could trouble her. She had achieved this sort of quietude a few times before, but never in this world.
The moment passed, but she still felt serene. She thought of some of the lines Richard had quoted earlier: Better by far you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad. This was exactly what she had done about Narnia: forget, rather than mourn. Should she try to do the same about her family? She didn’t think she could. Besides, whose advice was it? Somebody who ought to know, somebody wise? Did it even mean what it sounded like? That was the problem with quotations: they might mean something utterly different when you saw them in context. The lines were familiar, but Susan couldn’t place them. She would have to ask Richard tomorrow.
She nearly fell asleep there in the grass, but as her lids were closing she forced herself awake and felt her way through the dark house upstairs to her room.
The next afternoon she asked Richard about the quote. "It's from a poem by Christina Rossetti, 'Remember,' " he said.
"Oh, I thought I'd read it before. I took a couple of Lucy's books of poetry when I was going through her things, and one of them was Rossetti. Is that the one that's addressed to a lover, all about remembering her after she's dead?"
"Yes. You know your sister better than I, of course; I only met her a handful of times. But for what it's worth, I think that's what she would want you to do. Not remember, if it makes you sad. Not now, of course, but eventually."
"I don't know. She did have a great nostalgia for a place we lived when we were young. I don't think she ever forgot about it."
"Did thinking about it make her sad?"
"No, but it always made me sad."
"Well, there you are: better for you to forget and her to remember, it sounds like."
Susan thought about it. Had Lucy ever pressed her to remember, as Peter had done, and sometimes Ed, and even Eustace, who had never even been to Narnia with her? She couldn't remember Lucy doing so, not in the last few years.
"I was very grateful to her," Richard said. "She was wonderful to Jill. When I was in the navy, Jill wrote to me about her. I think without Lucy she would have had a much harder time at home alone. Eustace helped too, I suppose, but he wasn't especially sensitive. He was a good comrade, but not a confidante, I think."
"No, that's a bit hard to imagine," said Susan.
"Well, anyway, I don't think the poem is advising anybody to forget someone they loved. Only not to feel guilty for not living in the memory, if it makes them sad."
"I'm not as good at forgetting as I once thought," said Susan.
In order to make Richard's quotations easier to read as dialog, I've altered the punctuation and taken out the line breaks. The unidentified quotes are from Lewis Carroll, Tennyson, Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Chapter 19: Scar Tissue
11–15 August, 1949
Letters between Susan at Beckfoot and her friend Diana in London.
Thursday, 11 August, London
Well, Beckfoot does sound lovely! Maybe next time you can wheedle an invitation for me as well. As you know I don’t hike. Or swim, unless absolutely necessary to keep from drowning. I might give sailing a try if it isn’t too strenuous, although I'm not sure it would be wise as I do not take kindly to being ordered about. Does camping involve sleeping outside and doing without toilets? If so, that would be a no go as well. But otherwise it sounds like just my cup of tea.
All kidding aside, it sounds like you are getting exactly the respite you need. But I hope you don’t expect me to start calling you Susie, because I’m afraid that wouldn’t do at all.
I’m currently working on a new MS by a certain Prof Moriarty—I admit that is not his real name, but believe me, it’s extremely fitting, because he is completely diabolical! I have never seen an MS with so many carats and cross-outs and marginal notes and insertions with their own carats and cross-outs. He also uses a lot of obscure words that I must look up to make sure they are in fact words, and that he has them correctly spelt. Finding them in the dictionary sometimes takes quite a lot of sleuthing, but at least I am increasing my vocabulary. Mind you, I’m not sure what the MS is about, or even whether it’s in English. It’s quite possible that it’s in some new language of Moriarty’s devising. I may have to charge him double. Working on it is making camping begin to sound more appealing.
Do write and tell me more when the sister arrives. I won’t remind you about eating properly because I know that Peggy is on the case.
Saturday, 13 August, Beckfoot
The last couple of days have been quite a lot of fun. Peggy says that I’m doing well at sailing and I will be an Able Seaman, if not by the end of this visit, then by the end of my next visit (I am already invited for some later date, possibly October if I don’t have a job by then). I’m not exactly sure what it means to be an Able Seaman, but it sounds like an accomplishment.
Mavis’s husband arrived yesterday afternoon. His name is David (no surnames here except for Mrs. Blackett, though she did say I could call her Molly if I liked). Thursday evening Mavis started to worry that David and I might not get on. She warned me that some people find him difficult, and that he’s a bit sensitive about a number of things. One is a burn scar on his face from a cockpit fire during the war. The other big thing is class (his father was a miner). I wonder if she thinks I’m a snob! Anyway, by the time he arrived I was quite anxious about meeting him. The burn scar turns out to be not at all bad. You barely notice it when you’re looking at him from the front—mainly just a pucker at the corner of his eye. Most of the scar is on his right temple and cheek, and he wears his hair rather long, so I suspect it may also involve the ear. I don’t know why he’s self-conscious about it—I’ve seen much worse.
Mavis took Teddy to the station with her to meet David, and the little chap was so excited by his father’s arrival that he couldn’t keep still after they got back. Eventually Mavis thought he had calmed down enough to be put to bed, but while we were at supper he kept coming downstairs and popping his head into the dining room to announce the arrival of another monster. It seems there was a whole colony of them under his bed, and only Daddy could see them off. I’m sure it didn’t help that we all thought he was adorable. I’m afraid we egged him on and he started playing to the gallery. But finally Teddy got to sleep, and then I began to see why Mavis was concerned about how David and I might get on. He is just about to start a job teaching maths at Birkbeck college, and I suppose I must have looked surprised at this, because he certainly doesn’t look look or talk like most people’s idea of a mathematician. He got a bit tetchy, so I tried to make amends by telling him that maths had been my favorite subject, and he asked if I’d been any good at it, and then he started grilling me about why I hadn’t gone on to university! I don’t remember all the details of the conversation, but at one point he asked me if I quit because people told me I was too pretty to worry my head about things like maths. I was starting to be offended, but then I realized that he meant it as a serious question, so I tried to give him a serious answer. Usually I hate talking about anything like that because there’s no way to do it without sounding either conceited or falsely modest, but somehow he made the whole thing seem very impersonal, just a matter of academic interest. And he seemed to sympathize with me about how my father always made me out to be a ninny, until it seemed there was no point in not being a ninny (but then of course Father was disappointed in me for being as much of a ninny as he’d always said). David said he was interested in things like this because he was the sort of fellow who ought to have left school early, but for some reason, he kept on, and he’s trying to understand why he didn’t quit when he had so little encouragement, and when there were good reasons to leave. It sounds like it really was a hardship for his family. I said that the answer seemed obvious: stubbornness. He laughed and the conversation quieted down and became more general, and the others started chiming in, thank God. This morning he challenged me to a swimming race. I beat him quite handily and he took it very well. Apparently I have passed some sort of test and now we are great chums (except he used some Aussie word that I can't remember, cobbler or something like that). I think he is determined to convince me to go to university. He keeps pointing out how many of the Birkbeck students are older than typical university students—quite a lot older, some of them. And of course a lot of people had their education interrupted by the war and service.
It is very pleasant to be meeting men who are clearly interested in me only in a friendly way, and who are anyway absolutely off-limits because they are married to my friends. I don’t think I’ve had anything like a non-romantic friendship with a male, except for my brothers, since I was a child. But it seems there are a few men who don’t find the idea of a woman friend ridiculous, and who don’t worry that their wives will be jealous if they’re friends with other women—which I think speaks well of both them and their wives. It’s as though they actually trust each other! It makes me think a little better of men in general. The idea that they might like me and find me interesting and worth talking to, without wanting anything romantic (or bypassing romance altogether and trying to get me into the sack) is wonderful.
Nancy (the sister) arrives this afternoon. We are all agog with anticipation. I’m a little frightened of her—given what I’ve heard about her I expect her to be about six foot tall with a square jaw and a brusque manner. But we shall see.
Added later: I turn out to have been completely wrong about Nancy. She’s an inch or two shorter than Peggy (still taller than I) and has a very pleasant face, and she’s cheerful and funny, though a little loud. She and I were talking before supper and she said that Peggy had told her what had happened to my family, and that she couldn’t stand to say nothing about it, as though she didn’t know, so she wanted to tell me that I had all her sympathy. And of course I said thank you, and then she said, “Such rotten luck.” For some reason that struck me as a lovely, sensible, kind way to put it. I don’t understand why people think it’s comforting to say that it’s part of God’s plan, or that kind of thing. The idea that God did this to my family is horrid. I’d much rather think it was just rotten luck.
But I can see what Peggy means about Nancy making things happen, because within an hour after she arrived she was asking why we hadn’t taken out the Scarab (which is a dinghy that lives in their boathouse except when the friends who own it want to use it). We are going to race tomorrow. Nancy has taken over command of the Amazon, and Peggy will skipper the Scarab. Nancy says she wants me in her ship. I told her I am not an Able Seaman yet, but she says that’s all right, she just wants to see what I can do, and we will have either Richard or Mavis sailing with us as mate (just now Nancy and Peggy are negotiating about who is to be in the two crews). I would like to write more but I want to get this into the late post.
P.S. I just realized I ought to have addressed this to “my dear Holmes,” but it’s too late now, and besides, I don’t fancy being Watson. Are you planning to run Moriarty through? If so, do remember to wait until after he’s paid you.
Monday, 15 August, London
I’m sorry to bother you about this when you’re supposed to be getting your mind off your troubles, but I had a rather upsetting telephone call from your uncle this evening, and I thought you ought to know about it. He thought at first I was you, so he said some things that he probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Eventually I managed to make him understand who I was, but by then I think he was past caring about baring his soul to a virtual stranger. I won't go into everything, but the thing that really worried me was when he said that he was dying for a drink—I knew he and Mrs. Scrubb were teetotalers, so it struck me as very odd. I can’t remember if I ever told you about it, but my father used to hit the sauce pretty heavily at one time, so I know just how dodgy these situations can be. I asked if he had a bottle with him, and when he said he did I told him to pour it down the sink. He said he was doing it, but of course I couldn’t be sure, so I rang his neighbor Mr. Lawrence and asked him to check in on Mr. Scrubb (I didn’t mention the alcohol, but he guessed, so it seems this is an ongoing problem). Lawrence rang me back and said everything seemed to be all right, that your uncle was completely sober and apparently had followed my instructions about pouring out the bottle, because it was empty. But of course the whole thing had me worried. I knew you wouldn’t be back until Sunday night, so I rang your uncle back and asked what his arrangements were this week, whether he would be seeing anybody during the evenings or on the weekend. He said that he was invited to supper every evening, that their friends hadn’t let him eat supper alone since Mrs. Scrubb died. But of course that’s just supper. During the week he’s at work all day, I suppose, but I hated to think of him alone in that house all weekend, so I told him I would ring him at noon Saturday and Sunday, just to check in, and he seemed grateful. The telephone bill this month will be massive, but I suppose it can’t be helped.
I hope all of this makes sense, I’m still a bit upset. Did you know he had a problem with drink? I don’t want to spoil your holiday, but I knew you would be cross with me if you came home and found out that all of this had happened and I hadn’t told you about it. I will post this first thing tomorrow morning.
P.S. I received your letter this afternoon, but I’m afraid I’m not up to a reply. I do know what you mean about the idea that a man might be interested in something other than a romantic conquest. In my experience, it’s usually either that, or no interest at all. Are your friends just lucky to have found the only members of a rare breed, or are there really more decent men in the world than I have heretofore had reason to believe?
Chapter 20: Luck
16-17 August, 1949
More letters. More new characters (sorry). More about Uncle Harold.
Tuesday, 16 August, Beckfoot
It seems that the quiet, peaceful stage of the holiday is past. Our numbers have swollen, and an advance party has taken the first load of supplies and equipment over to Wildcat Island. We will be camping on the island from tonight through Friday. I ought to be helping Peggy and Mavis in the kitchen, where they are packing enough to feed an army, but I thought I would write to you today as I may not be getting mail for a few days (although Peggy assures me that the “native post” is very efficient and resourceful).
Mavis’s sister (the other Susan) and her family arrived yesterday. She and her husband, Gilberto Tedesco, have five children. The two eldest are actually Gil’s niece and nephew, who are orphans and who have been living with the Tedescos for the last year and a half. The family is not staying at Beckfoot as there isn’t nearly enough room, but they were here yesterday evening for supper (and games before and after). Then Nancy and Peggy and I took them in the motor launch across the lake to Holly Howe, where they’re staying.
Peggy told me about Gil’s family before they arrived, to spare me asking any awkward questions, I suppose. The basic story is this (and bear in mind, this is all second, third, or fourth hand, so I won't swear to all the details): Gil comes from an Italian Jewish family. He and his younger sister came here before the war, but they couldn’t persuade the rest of their family to leave Italy. After the war was over they found out that their eldest sister and her husband and children were safe in Switzerland, but their parents, who had stayed in Venice because his father was too ill to travel, had been killed. Then Gil spent nearly two years trying to find what happened to their other sister, Lia, and her family. All the eldest sister knew was that they had left Venice in the autumn of 1943, and they were going to try to hide in the countryside or possibly make their way south to Allied-occupied territory. (Do you remember what we were doing that autumn? I'm sure we were doing whatever the school wanted us to do for the war effort, but I can't remember.) Gil finally found the two children, Luisa and Tommaso, living in a little village in the Veneto. Peggy didn’t tell me exactly what happened to their parents (and I think there may have been one or two older children as well), only that a family in the village had saved the children by passing them off as their own, and that the other villagers helped them keep the secret. Peggy says the family had become extremely fond of the children, and for four years they were all the family the children had, so it wasn’t exactly a storybook happy ending when Gil found them and brought them back to England. It sounds as though it was a very sad parting.
I’m not sure why I’m telling you all of this, except that it’s been on my mind since Peggy told me. It’s terrible to think of what these children must have seen and heard. Did they even understand what was happening? Luisa is 12 now, so she was old enough at the time to understand pretty well, and to remember. Of course it also makes me think about my situation. What happened to my family was an accident, not malice. Nobody intended it. It was, as Nancy said a few days ago, rotten luck. Terrible, rotten luck. But still, luck. Would it be worse to know one's family had been murdered?
The two children seem remarkably normal and cheerful, all things considered. They are learning English, but they still speak Italian to each other and to Gil. Luisa seems older than her age; Tommaso is 9 and seems young and a bit timid. Susan’s oldest is only 8 but seems very sure of herself—until recently she was called Becky, but when they arrived she announced that she didn’t want to be called that any more and instructed us to call her Rebecca. The two younger ones are Debbie, who must be about 6, and Jakey is two. He and his cousin Teddy were born just a few weeks apart. The two little boys hadn't been together since they were babies, but almost immediately they became completely inseparable! Teddy by himself was adorable enough. The two of them together are almost unendurably sweet. As for Susan and Gil, they seem like exactly the kind of people who would make a good job of raising a family of five, including two who have endured a lot in their short lives. They are both very calm and even-tempered, and extremely well-organized, but not at all stiff. I expect their home is warm and comfortable and cheerful and, as Peter would have put it, "jolly."
All of the children call Peggy “Auntie,” Nancy “Captain Nancy,” and Mrs. Blackett “Granny.” By the end of the evening I got tired of being “Miss Pevensie” and told them they could call me “Aunt Susie.” If I ever marry, it will have to be a man with a big family so that our children will have cousins. Not that I’m interested in meeting eligible men right now, but it is beginning to seem possible to me that at some point I will want to.
P.S. I’m afraid that Nancy, Richard, and I lost our race on Sunday. Peggy is trying not to crow, but she says it’s difficult because she doesn’t often beat her sister when they race. I hope it wasn’t my fault we lost. Nancy says it wasn’t. She said she made a couple of mistakes early on and never recovered, and anyway, the captain is always responsible. Also, she will win next time.
Wednesday, 17 August, Beckfoot
I've just received your letter about Uncle Harold. Thank you for writing to me. You’re right, I would have been very cross if I came home and found you hadn’t told me about any of this! I’m sorry for leaving you to handle this situation, but thank you, thank you, thank you, for arranging to check on my uncle this weekend! Hang the telephone bill. (In the circumstances that probably wasn’t the best wording. At least I didn’t say it to Uncle Harold.)
Yes, I do know about Uncle Harold’s alcohol problem, but I only found out very recently. He told me about it just a week before I came up here. I feel awkward telling you this, because he did say it in confidence, but as you already know most of it I suppose there’s no harm. I’d always thought their being teetotalers was like the vegetarianism, some sort of moral or political principle, but apparently there was more to it. Uncle Harold used to drink quite heavily when he was young. From what he told me, it sounds as though by the time Eustace was born the situation really was quite dire, that he was in danger of damaging his career or even getting disbarred. Alberta decided the best thing to do was for both of them to swear off drink altogether, but he couldn't bring himself to it. Finally, when Eustace was about a year old, Alberta told Uncle Harold she would leave him (and take Eustace with her) if he didn’t quit drinking. You know what I think of Alberta, but it sounds as though in this case she did the right thing. Uncle Harold certainly thinks so. It makes me wish I had been able to really know Alberta when she was younger, I think I might have appreciated her more. In any case, he managed to get himself sober. My mother must have known about all of this, but she never so much as hinted about it. Just like her.
The problem now is that Harold depended on Alberta to keep him honest, and then later on as her condition got worse, he had to keep himself sober in order to take care of her and Eustace. But apparently even after 15 years the desire for drink never quite left him, and he told me that with all the strain he’s under right now, he’s finding it extremely difficult to resist. I wish he wasn’t alone so much, it must make everything harder.
I was going to suggest that if he rings you again this week, you might remind him that he can ring me here. But I don't know how many exchanges the call would have to go through, and even if I stay at Beckfoot, the person answering the phone would almost certainly be a total stranger to him. I was going to wire him, but honestly, what would I say in a wire? There isn’t really much I can do until I get back. I am writing a letter to him telling him to wire me if he wants me to come back early and stay with him for a bit, but my hunch is that he won't want me to do it. I hope you don’t have any more upsetting phone calls from him, because I really don’t know what to tell you about how to handle the situation. It sounds as though you know what to do better than I, so I suppose I will have to leave it to your judgment. Oh, dear, I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m passing the buck. If I were in London I would never ask this of you, I hope you know that!
We camped on the island last night, but Mavis and her sister had a slight row because Susan thinks that Jakey and Teddy are too young to camp out. All was settled amicably. Mavis is expecting, and she decided that if she needed to be sick first thing in the morning, it would be more convenient on the houseboat where she could just "chunder over the rail," as David put it. So she, David, and the two little boys ended up sleeping on the houseboat instead. I went over with them just to have a look, as Mr. Turner has collected an immense lot of interesting things over the years, and everybody agreed I ought to see them. I will tell you more about all of this when I get home. I will probably sleep on the island tonight, but after that I may go back to Beckfoot with Mavis and the little boys, just in case there are more letters or phone calls.
It was a good thing you wrote “urgent” on the envelope, or I might not have gotten your letter until tomorrow afternoon; as it was, Mrs. Blackett managed to get it to me this morning. Things are very busy and I want to get this letter and the one I’ve written to Uncle Harold, into the post. Mrs. Blackett posted my previous letter to you before I read yours, but perhaps if I can get this out quickly you will receive them at the same time.
Wednesday, 17 August, Beckfoot
Dear Uncle Harold,
I hope it doesn’t bother you too much to know that I’ve had a letter from Diana telling me about your conversations with her on Monday. She is very concerned about you, and so am I. But I don’t know what else to say about it right now, I’m a bit at a loss. I wish we could talk face to face, as there is only so much one can say in a letter. On the other hand, some things are easier to say in a letter. For example: Please let me help you! I am sure there are things I can do, but you’ll have to tell me what. If you want me to come stay with you, please wire me here and I will come down right away.
I know you have many friends in Cambridge, but I wonder whether it is too hard on you staying in that house by yourself. If you don’t like the idea of my coming to stay with you for a while, you can always visit me in London. As you know, I don’t have much room, but we could probably arrange for Diana to stay with friends if you want to come.
It’s very beautiful up here. I hope you have a chance to visit here some time, I think you would like it. I haven’t exactly been able to get my mind off my troubles, but I think I’ve gained some perspective, or something of that sort. In addition to Peggy and her sister and mother, I have been spending time with some of their old friends and their families, and they’re all quite lovely. I think you would like Gil Tedesco. He seems a very sane and steady fellow (but much more interesting than that makes him sound). He is the husband of one of these old friends of Peggy’s, and he must be about your age, but as he lives in Leicestershire I don’t know when you will get a chance to meet him.
I think the most important thing at the moment is for you to stay away from the drink. I know that’s what you want, but that it’s difficult right now. Diana is willing to help and has some experience with this sort of thing, and it sounds like you have friends in Cambridge who can help as well. I’m sorry that I’m too far away just now to be much use to you, but I promise that when I come back, I will help you in any way I can.
I’m sorry to make this a short letter, but I want to get it in the post as soon as possible.
The story of Gil's family is a direct result of a conversation I had with some friends a couple of months before writing this about "the problem of Susan," in which someone described Susan as being "brutally orphaned."
Ironically, the situation of Italian Jews worsened dramatically after the fall of Mussolini's government and the subsequent Italian surrender to the Allies in 1943. Up until that point, Italians had not cooperated in deportation of Jews to death camps, but once northern and central Italy became German-occupied territory, the Nazis began rounding up and deporting Jews. That's why Gil's family didn't try to leave Venice until the fall of 1943. See this article for an explanation of the situation of Jews in Italy under the Italian Fascist regime vs. the Nazis.
The language that Gil speaks with Luisa and Tommaso is not Italian, but Venetian, which, like most Italian "dialects," is not a dialect of standard Italian but a distinct language, spoken in the Veneto region of Italy. It's the language of Gil's childhood, but, like most educated Italians, he learned Standard Italian (aka the Florentine dialect of Tuscan) in school and it became his primary language as an adult. But of course Susan isn't aware of any of this.
Chapter 21: Outreach
18–20 August, 1949
More letters. A plan for Uncle Harold?
Thursday, 18 August, London
Thanks for your letter, and I’m sorry if mine sounded a bit panicked. I hope I did the right thing. Your uncle rang me yesterday evening to apologize and thank me for helping him. It’s the only time I’ve heard from him since Monday, and he seemed quite all right. I am still planning to ring him on Saturday. He said some friends of Mrs. Scrubb’s were taking him out walking on the weekend. It will probably do him good to get some fresh air. (Mind you, I am suspicious of this "fresh air" business, but I know many people claim to enjoy it.)
I never know what to make of stories like the one about Gil's family. Such unimaginable cruelty and brutality, but then also such bravery and kindness. You know I am not sentimental, but thinking about the people in that village makes me cry! I wonder if I could be that brave. I hate to think of what happened to the parents. I've heard such dreadful tales.
I hope your holiday hasn’t been completely spoilt by my letter. You can tell me more about it in a few days. It’s probably selfish of me, but I look forward to having you back home—it’s been so dull here. It seems that all of my friends are on holiday. The problem with not having a regular job is that I feel like I can take a holiday whenever I want to, but then I never do. I really ought to go somewhere exciting, like London! Oh, but I'm in London already...Well, when you get back perhaps we can go out dancing. Do you think Peggy would like to come along? I can't imagine Richard dancing.
I’ve finished with Moriarty for the time being. He said he may have more for me in a few weeks and didn’t bat an eyelid when I told him I’d have to charge him a higher rate. Now I am working on a long MS by a professor so dull I can't be bothered to give him an amusing nickname. It’s a very technical book on economic theory—I suppose it would be possible to imagine something duller, but it would take some effort. A treatise on drains, perhaps? I almost prefer Moriarty.
Please try to enjoy the last few days of your holiday.
Thursday, 18 August, Cambridge
Of course I realized that Miss Richardson would probably write to you. I feel a complete idiot mistaking her for you and involving her in my personal mess. She was very good about it, but I hate to impose on her. On the other hand, I’m beginning to realize that if I’m to manage, and especially to stay away from the drink, I’m going to have to swallow my pride and accept help from anybody willing to give it. I’ve thanked Miss Richardson, of course, but please tell her again that I’m grateful to her for being so understanding.
I hope this whole business hasn’t spoiled your holiday. I know you wanted to try to get your mind off things. It does sound very pleasant up there, and perhaps someday I’ll be in a state of mind to appreciate it. Right now I’m not much good to anybody, and I don’t seem to notice my surroundings much, so it would be wasted on me.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned to you that ever since the war ended my friend Bingham has been trying to convince me to join his firm in London. I never seriously considered it until recently, because I knew Alberta wouldn’t want to leave Cambridge. Now, however, I wonder if I ought to seize the opportunity. You're right that being alone in this house is very difficult for me. Sometimes I see Eustace out of the corner of my eye, coming down the stairs or walking in at the front door. I see Alberta, too, but more often I hear her voice. I hope this doesn’t sound as though I’m going mad. Perhaps something similar has happened to you? It’s not that I think they’re really there, or at any rate I only think it for a moment. It’s more that I see or hear something that I associate with their presence, and I respond to it by reflex before my rational mind can react.
Alberta would probably say it was my subconscious mind at work, or possibly my ego getting the better of my superego. To me it seems more like wishful thinking than anything else. To tell the truth, I’ve never understood what psychoanalysis is all about, and now I really do wonder what good it did Alberta, if any.
As for the drink, I’ve confessed all to Lawrence and a couple of other friends, and they’ve agreed to help keep me honest. I’m afraid that if I succumb once, there will be no stopping it. It was a bit of a miracle that Miss Richardson knew to tell me to pour the stuff down the sink. I’m not sure what would have happened if she hadn’t done that. I think the immediate crisis is past, and there's certainly no reason for you to come back early to stay with me, besides which, by the time you get this it would be too late for you to come back early! What I mean to say is that as the crisis had passed, I didn't think it necessary to wire you and take you up on your offer to come down. But I did feel immensely grateful for it.
I’m planning to go down to London to talk to Bingham and his partners next Wednesday, so assuming you come back from your holiday as scheduled I will see you then. I may stay overnight, but I can’t have you turning Miss Richardson out of the flat! If I do stay over, it will be somewhere else. Perhaps the law firm will even foot the bill for a hotel. For some reason the partners seem very eager to convince me to join them. Of course if I move to London, I will have my own flat. It’s rather an odd thought for a man my age.
I very much appreciate your offer of help, and no doubt at some point I will take you up on it. Brace yourself.
Much love, Harold
Friday, 19 August, Beckfoot
I haven’t heard from Uncle Harold yet, so I was starting to worry, but your letter was reassuring.
Despite the business with Uncle Harold over the past few days I’ve had a very good visit up here. It’s beautiful, and I’ve been able to do lots of swimming and learn to sail, and people have been very kind.
And, I don't know exactly how to put this, but it's been rather lovely to be with married couples who seem not only to be happy, but to have marriages I might like to emulate. Does that make sense? If you'd ever asked me about it I probably would have said my parents' marriage was happy, but now I wonder if it was just lacking in conflict, which isn't at all the same thing. For one thing, I think their domestic peace was largely due to my mother never questioning anything my father said or did. I don't think either of them was unhappy, exactly, but I'm sure that even before I began to think about it consciously, I had decided I wouldn't want to marry if it meant being that much of a doormat. But now I've spent the last week with three couples who have a kind of friendship and respect that I hadn't even realized was missing in my parents. Mind you, they're all very different. You've seen Peggy and Richard together, sometimes they're like a pair of comics, but given what I can gather about his family, it sounds as though she really has been his salvation. Gil and Susan have been married nearly ten years, so they seem very settled and comfortable together, although given the kind of people they are, that may have been true from the beginning. And he's a bit older than she, about ten years, I think. As for Mavis and David, I keep coming upon them in clinches! Although that may just be because they hadn't seen each other for a couple of weeks before he arrived. Of course, it's also possible that if I spent more time with them I'd see more flaws. Nobody gets along perfectly all the time.
Tomorrow we are having another race, but I am not sailing as we need crews of three, and if I went, Rebecca or Luisa would be left out (and frankly they are both better sailors than I). The three crews are Captain Peggy, Mate Gil, and Able Seaman Luisa (Scarab); Captain Nancy, Mate David, and Able Seaman Rebecca (Amazon); and Captain Susan, Mate Mavis, and Able Seaman Richard (Swallow). It took a long time to sort this out as the three captains agreed that either all three married couples should be kept together or all should be split up (if you’ve been paying attention, you can see that they’ve all been split up). Rebecca is extremely proud that Captain Nancy wanted her. I asked if they ever let men be skipper, and Nancy looked a bit puzzled and said “of course we do.” I suppose she was surprised that I was surprised that all three skippers were women. Richard pretends to be offended at being demoted to Able Seaman, but it's obviously a put-on. Mrs. Blackett and I will look after Debbie and the boys (Tommaso doesn’t seem much interested in sailing) and also judge the start and finish.
All in all it ought to be a good finish to the week. I hope that the feeling I have had while I’m here will last when I get back to London and all of my (and Uncle Harold’s) woes fall upon me again. At the very least I may be able to save you from being overwhelmed by boredom. Mavis and David have a flat not far from ours in Hampstead, I'm sure we will see them and that you will like them both. If you think you're sufficiently over that last pitiful fellow (what was his name, Reggie?), David or Richard may have friends worth knowing. The question is which to ask? I suppose it depends on what sort of man you fancy, since they are about as different as two men can be (but get on surprisingly well—I would've expected David to think Richard a "pommy bastard," but apparently not).
P.S. I suppose this letter may not reach you until after I return, in which case you will have to pretend that I'm not there while you're reading it.
Saturday, 20 August, Beckfoot
Dear Uncle Harold,
After I got your letter this morning, I had a bit of a brainwave. I hope you don’t mind, but I asked Peggy if she would consider taking you as a boarder, if you do decide you want to move to London. All three of her current boarders are leaving. She thought it was going to be just the two who have finished their degrees, but before we came up here she found out the other one is leaving as well (apparently there is a woman involved!). In any case, that means she has one more place to fill than she thought, and she said she’d be happy to have you if you’re interested, but that you’d have to make up for not being a foreign student by being an interesting psychological case (I’m sure she was joking about the last bit). It needn’t be a permanent thing, you could just try it for the autumn term and see how it goes. I think it would be good for you to be living in a household with other people, at least at first, rather than on your own in a flat. I’m sure you’d be eating better. I know you can cook, but I also know from experience that living alone inevitably leads to eating things out of tins. Peggy and Frances are both good cooks, and they have a very nice kitchen garden (Peggy has been bringing me and Diana vegetable marrows all summer). It really is rather a deluxe place to board. Peggy says the bedrooms are small, but you’d have the run of the downstairs as well. I wonder if her regular boarders understand what a fantastic situation it is. Probably not when they first arrive, but after seeing how most of their classmates are living they must feel very lucky. And it’s a good location, a quiet side street near shops and the Tube station.
I wasn’t going to tell Peggy about the drink, as I thought it would be better if you discussed it with her, but even though I didn’t say anything, she asked about it. She said she’d been wondering since that day at the railway station, because of something you said when she suggested getting a drink. I don’t remember it at all, but I think by that point I may have been about to break down. That whole afternoon is rather vague in my memory, which is probably just as well. In any case, she seems to understand the situation, but I told her she would have to talk to you about it herself because I didn’t feel right discussing it without asking you about it first, so she said she’d write you a letter. I hope you don’t mind, I really didn’t say anything, she was the one who brought it up!
I hope this doesn’t all seem too managing or pushy, but it seemed like such a good idea, I thought I ought to talk to Peggy about it before she fills up all her places. We are leaving Beckfoot Sunday and will be back in London quite late, but I will ring you on Monday evening.
Of course I understand about you seeing Eustace and Alberta in the house! It doesn’t sound mad at all. I keep seeing all of them, especially Lucy. Not so much up here, but in London I’ll catch a glimpse of Lucy in a shop or getting onto a bus and think “There she is, she’s alive!” Then of course it turns out to be a girl who looks a bit like Lucy, or who doesn’t look like her at all except for having blond hair. I think it must be a very usual reaction. I saw some young men in the park playing cricket a few weeks ago, and for a moment I would have sworn Peter and Edmund were with them, and that Peter was bowling. Later on I thought it very strange that I should imagine that, because of course Edmund hated cricket, and Peter was never a bowler. The mind plays strange tricks sometimes. I miss them all so much. In a way it’s odd that I should. I didn’t see them every day, as you did Alberta, and Eustace when he was at home. But somehow they were always there with me, even when I wasn’t thinking of them.
Being up here has been good for me. The air is good, the company is good, the food is good—Peggy is so pleased about how well I’ve been eating. The sadness is always with me, but it doesn’t overwhelm me.
Please do think about the boarding idea. I’ll understand if you don’t like it, but I hope you’ll at least consider it.
Saturday, 20 August, Beckfoot
I hope you don’t mind that Susie and I have been planning your future for you. And she really didn’t say, or even imply, anything about the alcohol—it was something I had wondered about because of a couple of things you said that awful day we met in the railway station, and also because of a comment your wife made the one time I met her, and the way Susie reacted when she read Diana's letter. So I asked Susie about it, and I think she was so surprised that she couldn’t find a way to respond without giving anything away. I suppose it wasn’t fair of me to ask her, but if you do wish to board with us, I would prefer to have all of these things out in the open.
As it happens, I am looking for two new boarders—as Susie may have mentioned, all three of my boys are leaving, and I still have two places open. The room I would put you in is on the third floor. Willem has already moved out, so you can have it any time. It is small, but it’s very pleasant, with a window looking out on the back garden. There is no bathroom on the third floor, so you would share the second floor bathroom with me and Richard and any other male boarders (one at most this term). The other occupants of the house are Richard's sister Frances and her daughters Veronica, who’s 7, and Samantha, who’s 10. They are on the first floor and have their own bathroom, which they share with any female boarders if we have them. Frances runs the place when I am away (usually up here at Beckfoot), but generally I am the one in charge (this may or may not worry you). Because of the girls we do have to be strict about overnight guests, but you don’t seem the sort of man who would be inclined to entertain loose women or other unsavory characters in your room. Also, I feel awkward saying this, but I wouldn't want you to get any ideas about Frances. She's a lovely woman, and a widow, and about the right age for you, but I hope you can see how extremely quickly things could get extremely awkward. I'm sure you understand. I hope you don't mind my mentioning this, and perhaps it would never have occurred to you if I hadn't said anything, in which case I apologize. It's just that I find it's best to be blunt and to bring these things up before they become a problem.
I am not sure exactly how we would handle vegetarian meals. I suppose it depends on how strict you are about it. Susie says you cook, so perhaps you could teach me some vegetarian dishes. In any case, it’s something we would have to discuss, but I’m sure we could manage. The cost is 14/- per week, which I presume will not be a problem for you. That includes breakfast and supper and kitchen privileges to fix other meals for yourself.
We aren’t big drinkers, and neither is Frances—and we really only drink when we go out, not in the house. The American girl I have lined up as a boarder seems like the studious, hard-working sort, so it looks as though it would be possible to keep the house “dry,” or at any rate, mostly. I still have one more boarder to find, but just before we left London I got an inquiry from an Indian young man who’s studying political economy at LSE. Frances has been in touch with him, and it looks like he may be joining us. With any luck he will turn out to be the ascetic sort—perhaps even a vegetarian! From his letter I got the idea that he is a bit of a radical, which ought to be exciting.
We would be happy to have you, but if you were to live here you would have to promise to stay away from alcohol. It sounds like that’s what you want to do, so I hope it won’t be a difficult promise to make. I agree with Susie that with all you have to cope with right now, it is not good for you to be alone so much. We can discuss more when you are in London next week, if you're interested. I won't be offended if you don't like the idea.
I hope that having letters back and forth each day doesn't seem unrealistic. My understanding is that at that time in England the post was delivered twice a day (except Sunday), and that service was very quick. Presumably from London to somewhere as remote as Beckfoot would have taken a bit longer, but I don't know.
I'm also unsure about attitudes about alcoholism circa 1949. I've avoided the word "alcoholic," which was certainly in use at the time, because it seems likely to have been a word people would avoid as impolite.
I guessed about the price of boarding. Any insights into the cost of a clean, pleasant, well-run, but not posh, boarding house in Bloomsbury in 1949? I feel silly for bothering about this, but...
Chapter 22: Prepare A Face
21 August, 1949
Susan travels back to London with her Beckfoot friends.
Susan was dozing with her head leaning against the window of the compartment when some motion of the train jostled her awake.
“…only person I’ve ever seen who could look regal wearing nothing but bathers,” Nancy was saying.
Then Peggy: “When I was her age I would’ve given a lot to look like that. Now I think I ought to have appreciated how much easier it is, looking ordinary…”
Susan knew that "regal, even in bathers" was the kind of thing people said about her. She thought perhaps she should sit up so they would know she was awake, but apparently she dozed off again instead because the next thing she was aware of was Nancy saying, “You think I ought to marry him.”
“I think you ought to either marry him or break things off,” said Peggy. “I don’t understand why this is the one thing in your life you can’t decide about.”
“You know why. If I get married, they toss me out of the Wrens.”
“Well then, break it off! It’s not fair to keep things dragging on like this…”
“Shh, don’t wake Susie,” said Nancy.
The two women lowered their voices and Susan could no longer hear what they were saying. She was grateful, as she was still half asleep and this spared her the dilemma of whether to draw attention to the fact that she was awake or continue to pretend to be fully asleep. Then Peggy said heatedly, “I don’t know. I just think you need to decide, that’s all. Especially if you want a baby. You’re nearly 32, and it might not happen right away.”
They were silent for a moment. Susan, now fully awake, sat up and yawned ostentatiously. Neither sister seemed to notice. Richard had gone off somewhere, and Mavis and David had decamped with Teddy to an empty compartment a while ago, when the little boy started to fuss.
“Did you lose another one?” Nancy asked. And when Peggy didn’t answer, she asked, “When was it?”
Peggy glanced at Susan, caught her eye for a moment, and looked back at her sister. “In June,” she said. Susan tried to think. She had been in Wingrave a great deal in June, but surely she ought to have noticed that something was wrong with Peggy.
“I’m sorry. The doctor still can’t find anything wrong?” Nancy asked.
“Perhaps it’s just bad luck.”
“Two or three might be bad luck.” Peggy glanced at Susan again and then said, “This makes six.”
Susan was shocked. Six miscarriages?
“Well…perhaps you should find a different doctor,” Nancy said.
“I have an appointment with a specialist in a few days.”
“That’s good. Maybe he’ll find out what’s wrong.”
“She. Maybe she’ll find out what’s wrong.”
“Oh,” said Nancy ruefully, “there I go assuming.”
“It’s just…what if she finds out what’s wrong, and it’s something that can’t be fixed?”
“Then you adopt. There’s always a way, Peg.”
“What does Richard say?”
“I used to think it didn’t bother him as much as it does me, but I’ve realized that’s not true. And this last one was especially hard on him.”
“Because of Jill?”
“Yes, I think so….Listen, he’s been gone a while, I’m going to go find him.” Peggy got up.
“I’d no idea,” Susan said, after she’d left.
“No reason you should,” said Nancy.
“I thought…something was probably wrong. But there didn’t seem to be a polite way to ask about it.”
“Yes, it’s a bit of a taboo subject,” said Nancy. “She probably wanted you to know, though, or she would have stopped me saying anything just now. But…you'll notice she didn't even tell me until I'd asked. She hates people to fuss about it.”
“I won’t fuss, then.”
“No, you don't seem the fussy sort,” Nancy said, approvingly.
A few minutes later Peggy and Richard returned and sat down quietly. He had his arm around her, and she put her head on his shoulder and said she was going to try to sleep, but she didn’t close her eyes.
Not long after that they stopped at a station where a lot of people boarded the train. Mavis and David returned with Teddy. “Sorry, but all the compartments are filling up, and it seems more polite to inflict him on you than on strangers,” said Mavis. But Teddy was in a more charming mood than he had been earlier anyway. He tried out several laps, ending finally on Peggy’s. She cuddled him, and after a while he fell asleep. Susan studied Peggy’s face. She was smiling, holding Teddy gently. Richard, sitting next to her, was impassive, as he often was. Susan wondered about all the cheerful or neutral faces that she saw every day. She wondered what might be going on behind them. She wondered what her own face told people about her. Did it tell the truth?
Chapter 23: Starting Over
22-25 August, 1949
Harold tries to explain his life with Alberta. Peggy has news.
Susan rang Uncle Harold on Monday night. He was quiet, but she didn’t detect in him any of the fogginess that had so worried her in July, when he had seemed to find it difficult to follow even a simple conversation. To her relief he appeared to be taking the idea of boarding with Peggy seriously. Peggy had invited Susan and Harold to supper on Wednesday evening, but he had to decline because he was having dinner with Bingham and his law partners at Bingham's club.
“Gosh,” said Susan, “Do people still do that?”
“Apparently they do,” said Harold. “And before you ask, there may be cigars, but Bingham and I have been friends for a long time, and he knows better than to urge me to drink.”
Susan wondered whether it was possible to spend an entire evening at a gentlemen’s club without drinking. But of course all of her information about gentlemen’s clubs came second hand, at best.
Thursday morning Harold came by Susan’s flat before returning to Cambridge. Diana was typing in the bedroom. Harold looked thin and drawn, and somehow the various parts of his face didn’t seem to work together in quite the same way as they used to do. Still, he looked noticeably better than the last time she had seen him. He looked as though he was grieving, but not utterly crushed.
“Do you want to go see Peggy now?” Susan asked.
“I’ve already been to see her. She had some sort of appointment later this morning, so I went over first thing. It’s a very comfortable place. If I do decide to join the firm, it ought to do well, I think. She said there was no hurry for me to decide. The other two boarders are arranged, and she hasn’t had any new inquiries.”
“Did she show you the piano?” Susan asked. “I told her she ought to.”
“Yes, it’s a very good instrument, or would be if it were in tune. A Bechstein. Apparently nobody’s played it much in about 10 years, I gather Richard’s parents left it behind when they moved to Norfolk. Peggy said they've been meaning to have it tuned, and knowing somebody might want to play it would give them a bit of a push.”
“I haven’t played much in the last two or three years…” he said. "Alberta couldn't...it upset her. Whatever I was playing, the mood didn't suit her."
“But now you can start playing again.”
He nodded slowly, but then he said, “I need time, Susan. It’s not going to come back all at once. God, it’s only been six weeks.” Abruptly, he sat down heavily at the kitchen table and put his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you,” she said.
“I know. It’s just that…everybody seems to think Alberta’s death is…sort of an opportunity for me. To start over again…to be free of her…”
Susan shrugged uncomfortably. It was true that after the first shock, she had thought Uncle Harold would be better off without Alberta, but now she felt ashamed of thinking so. “I hope I haven’t said that. I never meant to,” she said. “It’s true that Alberta and I didn’t get on, but of course I know that you loved her.”
“But you don’t know,” Harold said. “Or at least you don't understand. Not really. You couldn't. You don't know her the way I do. I can see why you didn’t get on with her…She was…she was so difficult. Even in the beginning. But when we first met…you’ve no idea how exciting she was. She wasn’t beautiful, she was better than beautiful, she was alive in a way that I’d never seen before. Everything she did or said was a challenge. I had to rethink everything I’d ever believed, everything I thought I knew. It was exhilarating. And she was so passionate, I’d no idea it could feel like that…”
Susan wondered if she should stop him before he said anything too embarrassing. But then he seemed to collect himself. He drew a deep breath. “And then later on, even when she was depressed, I knew the other Alberta was in there, waiting. She was like a...like a banked fire. Nobody understands that….”
Susan could think of nothing to say. She sat down next to him at the table.
He looked up. His eyes were wet. “And everybody forgets about Eustace. It’s as though Alberta’s death just…wipes him out of people’s minds."
"Oh, I don't think that can be true..."
"I suppose not, but that's how it seems sometimes. It's just that...lately I've been having the most awful feeling that I never really knew him, that I was…pushing him to be what I thought he ought to be, without even giving a thought to what he was…If I'd known what was going to happen I'd have done things differently, but I ought to have done them differently in any case. It’s been obvious the last few years that he had secrets...I thought maybe to do with Jill, but if that was it, why would he have hidden it from us, even if the two of them were…what do young people call it these days?”
“Um…going to bed?”
He looked at her skeptically for a moment. “I doubt that's what you really call it,” he said drily. “But in any case, if they were, I'd have to be an awful hypocrite to object, considering the kind of thing I got up to when I was young…though not often in a bed, mind you…”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to embarrass you.”
“It’s all right.”
"Young people can be such prudes when it comes to their elders..."
"I suppose so."
“Well, that's all beside the point anyway. What you must understand is how it hurts me, people thinking I’m better off now…”
“I’m sorry. I never meant to imply anything like that…”
“No, I know you didn’t. But I realize you weren’t especially fond of Eustace. And you can’t hide how you feel about Alberta. I know you dislike her. I know you think my life with her was hell...”
“Was it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, after a moment. “Sometimes. Sometimes it was. And...heaven, sometimes.” He laughed self-consciously. “Never a dull moment,” he said.
"I'm not sure I can understand, but I'll try."
Susan got up and made a pot of tea. Harold seemed to pull himself together, and they talked fairly normally about plans for the next few weeks. Susan was trying to get the house in Wingrave ready to sell by the first of September. Harold was talking about his move to London as though it was virtually decided.
“One thing’s for certain—even if I stay in Cambridge, I can’t go on living in that house,” he said. “If I did I think I really would go mad. I’m tempted to sell the place lock, stock, and barrel.”
“Oh!” said Susan. “But if you decide to do that…”
“What is it?”
“Well, it seems a bit silly, but that painting in the spare room, the one of the ship…if you do decide to sell the house, would you mind if I kept that?”
“If you want it, of course you can have it. It’s a rum little painting—but it’s been growing on me since I've been sleeping in that room.”
“Lucy used to love it,” Susan said, by way of explanation.
“Yes, I remember her talking about it that summer they stayed with us. She had some odd fancies, Lucy…”
In a little while Diana finished typing and came out to sit with them. Susan invited Harold to stay for lunch, but he said he must go, that he would have lunch in the train.
“I suppose there’s something to be said for starting over again at 40,” he said as he departed. “At least, I hope I’m not as much of a fool as I was the first time around.”
About an hour after Harold left, there was a knock at the door. It was Peggy and Mavis.
“Uterine septum,” said Peggy triumphantly.
“I've been to the specialist this morning. Mavis came with me. The doctor thinks I have a uterine septum, it’s a partition in the uterus, and that’s what’s causing all the miscarriages. I'll have to have tests to make sure. But if that’s what it is, she thinks she can fix it!”
“That’s wonderful!” said Susan.
“Well, it’s not wonderful yet,” said Mavis. “Peggy, I really think you need to calm down a bit.”
“It may be a uterine septum, and if it is the doctor may be able to fix it. But it would mean surgery, and then if you did get pregnant and did carry to term, it would mean a cesarean section,” said Mavis.
“I don’t care!” said Peggy. “Besides, she said it was minor surgery.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Diana.
“It still means general anesthetic,” said Mavis.
“Oh, don’t be a wet blanket!” said Peggy.
“I'm not trying to be discouraging, I just don’t think you ought to get your hopes up,” said Mavis.
“Somebody please explain to me what’s going on,” said Diana.
Susan went to make a pot of tea while the other two explained. Peggy, who had spent most of the previous day working off her excess energy by baking, had brought some jam tarts.
Eventually, Peggy stopped bouncing around the room like a rubber ball. "I know nothing is certain," she said, "but I was so afraid she would say there was nothing anybody could do, and that would be it. At least there's a chance."
Chapter 24: Silks
28-29 August, 1949
Susan tackles the last few boxes in her parents' attic.
Susan had spent much of May and June in Wingrave, sorting and packing, deciding what to keep, what to sell, what to give away. She had hoped to be finished going through her family’s effects by now, but Alberta’s suicide had kept her occupied for most of July, and after her holiday at the lake much of August was gone as well. There wasn't much left in her parents’ house, but it was all things she had been putting off: a number of crates and trunks in the attic, still unopened; the boxes containing her siblings’ letters; and some of her mother’s clothes and jewelry. It really oughtn’t to take her more than two or three days to finish up, she told herself. Sunday she took the train up to Aylesford.
At least one headache seemed near to being resolved: somebody, she devoutly hoped, was going to take the professor's papers off her hands. Just before Susan left for her holiday she had finally given up on donating the papers to the British Museum. The problem was that the museum was still recovering from the war—both the damage to the museum itself and the evacuation and recovery of so much of its contents. She had had several frustrating conversations with a curator at the museum’s library who said that he was interested, but who seemed too harried to remember anything she told him from moment to moment. Finally she gave up and when she came back from the lake she tried the library at Cambridge. There she talked to a librarian who seemed very eager indeed to get his hands on the papers. He was unhappy when she told him that she had already been through the whole collection but was somewhat mollified when she said that, other than extracting anything to do with her own family, she had tried to leave everything as she had found it. He would come to Wingrave to look at the papers on Tuesday. She hoped he was planning to arrive in a lorry.
The morning after she arrived she started working on the attic with the goal of finishing it that day. She burrowed into trunks, uncovering a miscellany: old family photographs, a set of enamel bowls, a crinoline that must have belonged to her grandmother, a number of old account ledgers, yarn that her mother had spent years collecting (a collection much depleted during the war, when they were all doing so much knitting). Many of the trunks carried labels in her mother’s handwriting describing the contents. Eventually she came to a trunk labeled simply “Trousseaux.” Susan assumed that this trunk would contain things from her mother’s trousseau, and it was only after she opened it that she realized that the word on the label was in the plural. The trunk was full of things that Mother had been saving for Susan and Lucy. Susan had to go out to the landing and sit on the stairs for a while, leaning her head against the wall, weeping as she thought of her mother’s years of careful planning. Then she steeled herself to tackle the trunk.
Nearly everything in it was more than 10 years old: during the war adding to the trunk would have been next to impossible, though Susan did recognize two tablecloths that she remembered her mother buying in New York in 1942. And there were a few small things that had been added since the war ended: lace that Mother had knit herself, several packets of buttons that Susan thought Ed must have brought back from Italy. Everything was carefully wrapped and mothballed to prevent deterioration. Susan decided to carry the contents of the trunk downstairs, to unwrap where there was less dust. Most of the packages contained linen and woolens, all very good quality (Mother was picky about such things, and had always been on the lookout for a bargain). At last she unwrapped two bundles marked “Susan” and “Lucy.” They contained silks: eight yards or so of sapphire blue shantung for Susan, and for Lucy two lots of soft crepe, one pale gold and the other deep rose. Her mother must have bought these when they were little girls—probably in Hong Kong in 1936, the year Mother and Father visited Aunt Alice in Australia (Susan remembered being left behind at boarding school, and feeling very rebellious about it).
Susan held the shantung against her shoulder and imagined what a gorgeous evening gown it would make. She knew that Lucy would have loved the crepe just as much. But Mother had bought these so long ago—how had she known what her daughters’ tastes would be? She had wisely chosen solid colors rather than prints, which would have quickly become dated. But the colors were so perfect…had she simply chosen fabrics that she thought would suit her daughters’ complexions? Had she had intuited from the beginning what her daughters' tastes were? Or had she assigned them each a set of attributes (sophisticated or artless; reserved or merry; dramatic or demure) and then done her best to guide her daughters in the directions she had chosen? There was no way to say. Susan decided it didn’t matter. The silk was beautiful. The feeling that her mother had understood her was a welcome change from her persistent misgivings over the last four months about how well she had really known her family.
She parceled out the contents of the trunk. She knew her mother would want her to keep half of it herself, the half that would have been hers eventually anyway. But some of the linen could go to Mrs. Pickford, and there was a length of soft, blue-grey wool jersey she thought Diana would like. The rose-colored silk to Marjorie; the gold to Peggy. Mavis, who was settling into a new flat, might like to have one of the tablecloths. These were pleasant thoughts.
She brought the empty trunk downstairs, dusted and cleaned it, and repacked the contents carefully except for the parcels she had set aside for Mrs. Pickford and Marjorie. Then she went back upstairs to the attic and finished sorting and repacking what was left—a small box to take home with her, the rest to go either to the Red Cross or to Portobello Road. Later she would ask Mr. Pickford to help her carry it all downstairs.
The attic was finished. Susan dusted herself off and washed her face and hands. Then she celebrated her accomplishment by bicycling over to Marjorie’s house with the rose-colored silk. Marjorie was pleased to see her and invited her in for tea. She thanked Susan for the silk, exclaiming over it and agreeing that Lucy would have loved it.
Chapter 25: Money
1-14 September, 1949
Susan needs some income.
When Susan got back to London there were only a few loose ends left to tie up in Wingrave. That weight, at least, was beginning to lift from her back. Mr. Pickford had recommended an agent in Aylesford, and she wrote to him about selling the house.
But she was starting to worry about money. The last few months had been expensive, and she had not been able to make her savings stretch as far as she had hoped. Uncle Harold had already renewed his offer to advance her some money if she fell short, but she hated to ask him. It looked as though after the estates went through probate she ought to be relatively comfortable. The sale of the professor’s books had offset his debts, with a bit left over; none of her siblings had left very much in savings, but taken together their savings amounted to more than hers before the accident; and according to Uncle Harold, her parents’ estate, even after taxes, would eventually furnish her with a good nest-egg. But it wouldn’t be enough that she could live on the interest. And, more to the point, she didn’t have access to it yet. She needed income.
Before the accident, she had always known in the back of her mind that if she were ever really destitute she could go back to living with her parents, which would be humiliating, but better than being out on the street. The money from her parents’ estate would provide a similar cushion, but somehow it didn’t give her the same feeling of security. She remembered that feeling of detachment, of weightlessness. Well, if she was weightless, she couldn’t fall.
The thought of going out and looking for a job was depressing. She wasn’t sure why, because according to all of her friends many firms were hiring, and finding a job wasn’t at all difficult. Perhaps it was because all the jobs she was qualified for seemed dull, and the idea of sitting in an office all day made her feel restless. She delayed for a few days by doing some alterations on her clothes, telling herself this would make her more presentable to potential employers. For one thing, she hadn’t gained back any of the weight she had lost since the accident (although at least she’d stopped losing weight), and most of her clothes needed to be taken in. When she was finished with these, she could start altering Mother's good suit, her only completely new outfit since the end of the war. It was years since Susan had done any serious sewing, but having her mother’s sewing machine inspired her. Diana half-jokingly suggested that she try to make money by doing alterations, but they both knew she wasn’t really good enough (or, more to the point, fast enough) to make a living at it.
A few days after Susan got back from Wingrave, Diana came home from delivering a manuscript with a thoughtful look on her face. “I ran into Richard in Bloomsbury,” she said. "Did you know he works at Gollancz?"
"I think so. I knew he worked at some publisher or other."
“I’m not sure how it came up but he said they’re looking for a new copyeditor, and he thinks I should apply.”
“Yes, he said that what I was doing with my manuscripts was copyediting, not just typing, and it was too bad I couldn’t show the editors Moriarty’s originals and the typescripts, because if I did they’d probably hire me on the spot.”
“Does he know you haven’t been to university?”
“Yes. He says it’s not important.”
“Well, do you want to do it?”
“It would be nice to have a regular salary. And sometimes I feel a bit cooped up in this flat. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to work the hours I want. But I suppose it couldn’t hurt to apply.” She hesitated, and then added, “Who knows, if I do a good job I might get a chance to take a crack at something else. Real editing.” Susan was a trifle surprised at how eager she seemed. Diana never said much about her ambitions.
“Moriarty would be very sorry to lose you,” Susan said.
Diana laughed. “Probably. I do have a lot of regular clients. If I do get this copyeditor job, would you take on some of them for me? I’d lend you my typewriter.”
“I’m not nearly a good enough typist, Diana! Good enough for an office job where I'm doing other things, but not if typing is all I'm doing.”
“You’d get better fast. I wasn’t that good when I started out.”
Susan thought about it. She didn’t really want to do what Diana did, but as a stop-gap until she found a new job, it wasn’t a bad idea.
Within a week, Diana had been offered the job. She didn’t have to start for another week after that, so she decided to take a few days’ holiday in Paris. She wanted Susan to come with her, but Susan couldn’t afford it.
A couple of days after Diana left, Mavis asked Susan if she was interested in modeling for her. “I’m doing the illustrations for a children's edition of Robin Hood, and I could use you for Maid Marian. Peggy says you’re an archer, and you’ve got the right look.”
“I’ve always thought of Maid Marian as a blonde," said Susan.
Mavis shrugged. "She doesn't have to be. She could have any color hair. Do you fancy being a redhead? Besides, this isn't really going to be a portrait—mostly I need you so I can get the stance right. I want her to look like she really knows how to use a bow. Not like a tag-along, or a damsel in distress."
“When would you need me?"
“Any time in the next couple of weeks," Mavis said. "But I'm afraid I can't pay you much. On the other hand, you could probably get higher-paying work at one of the academies if you wanted to do more modeling. I don't recommend it as a career, but it's not a bad way to make extra money."
“Would I have to take my clothes off?”
Mavis laughed. “Why is that always the first question people ask?”
“Well, would I?”
“Not necessarily. My guess is they’d want you more for your face. The main skills of being an artist's model are not minding people looking at you, and being able to hold still without looking stiff or getting so bored that you can’t stand it.”
Susan considered this. As Queen Susan she had had a lot of practice at both skills, especially being looked at, though she had never much enjoyed it. Add it to the list of things she might do if she had to. In the meantime, she agreed to model for Mavis. That didn't sound too bad.
That night she lay in bed thinking of what else she could do. Swimming coach? She had the skills, but not the certification, and the same was true of teaching archery. It would probably have to be an office, eventually. But not quite yet.
Chapter 26: A Good Catch
19 September, 1949
The girls drink tea and get the giggles.
Peggy invited Diana and Susan over for tea the afternoon before Diana started her new job. “Your last day as a free woman,” said Peggy. “I think I’d go mad working in an office.”
“Luckily not everybody feels that way,” said Diana. She was keeping her cool, but Susan could tell she was excited about the new job.
Mavis was there when they arrived, and Teddy had just fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room. They tiptoed into the kitchen, where Frances was making tea.
“How was Paris?” Peggy asked.
“Ooh-la-la!” replied Diana. They all laughed. “I hadn’t realized how I've become used to living among ruins,” she added. “I think being occupied must be easier to recover from than being bombed.”
“I'm sure it doesn’t seem like that to them,” Mavis said.
“No, I suppose not. But anyway, I had a wonderful time. I ate and drank myself sick, and I met a lovely fellow named André who didn’t speak a word of English. As my French is limited, he made the perfect companion.” She went on at some length about her adventures with André, but Susan wasn’t sure how much of it to believe. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Diana, especially when it came to men.
Diana asked Peggy about her surgery, which was scheduled for mid-October, but Peggy didn’t seem to want to discuss it. Instead she started talking about her boarders: “We’ll have a full house again soon. Pearl is arriving tomorrow, and Arup on Friday. And last time I heard from Harold he said a week from Monday.”
“I’m sure he’ll be a lot…well, not exactly happier, but more comfortable, living here. He won’t be under so much strain,” said Susan.
“I hope so. But he's going to have to prepare to be popular. Once he’s looking a bit less haggard he’ll have women throwing themselves at him,” said Peggy.
Susan laughed. “Do you really think so?”
“There are a lot of widows under 40 in London. And he’s an attractive man.”
“I suppose so. I never really thought about it,” Susan said.
“Peggy tells me he looks like Joseph Cotten,” said Frances.
“Uncle Harold? Don't be silly!” said Susan.
“Oh, no, he doesn’t look a bit like Joseph Cotten!” Diana said.
“Thanks," said Susan. "At least somebody’s—“
“He’s so much more distinguished,” interrupted Diana. “Honestly, Peggy, you’ve got Joseph Cotten on the brain since you saw The Third Man.”
Peggy shrugged. “Some handsome devil with a cleft chin, anyway,” she said. “But really it ought to be someone with very dark hair.”
“Cary Grant?” suggested Mavis.
“Good God, no!” said Peggy.
“I must get a look at him. Then I could probably make a better suggestion,” said Mavis.
"I haven't met him either, but now I'm starting to regret my promise to keep my hands off," said Frances.
“This is my uncle you’re talking about!” Susan protested.
“And there’s a strong family resemblance!” said Peggy. “You’ve got exactly the same coloring. Did your mother have black hair and blue eyes too?”
“Yes…” said Susan.
“I thought so. It’s very striking. He’s quite fit for a man his age, as well. I’d need to see him out of a suit jacket to be certain, but he can’t have much of a paunch, if any.”
“Peggy, have you been ogling my uncle?”
“Of course not! I’m just naturally observant.”
“Do you think he’d model for me?” asked Mavis. “A mature man with a good physique is hard to find.”
“Stop it!” said Susan. The others were all laughing. “Honestly, grown women giggling about movie stars and leering at poor Uncle Harold,” she said reprovingly. “…Oh do quiet down! You’ll wake Teddy!” But Susan had started laughing too. She couldn’t help it. She was surprised to find that it felt good.
“He’s a solicitor with a good firm, and he knows how to cook,” said Peggy. “Even if he were hideous, every war widow in London would be after him within six months! Speaking of which...” By the tone in her voice, Susan knew that Peggy had been looking for a way to bring up what she was about to say. "What did he do during the war? He's never said, and neither have you."
Susan exchanged a glance with Diana, who knew. “He drove an ambulance. Here, and in Ethiopia, and later on in France," Susan said.
"A CO, then," said Peggy, nodding. "I wondered. Well, it sounds as though he did his bit."
Susan, who had not even realized that she'd tensed up, relaxed. Most people reacted more or less the way Peggy had, but once in while...She cleared her throat. "Yes, I think he did," she said. "He was with the Friends' Ambulance Unit."
"He did as much as anybody in the medical corps then, probably," said Mavis. "The FAU was right on the front lines." Susan recalled that she'd worked in a convalescent hospital.
"He'll be quite a good catch for someone," said Peggy. "I just hope the lady is deserving."
Susan rolled her eyes.
I don't mean to imply that Harold is a Friend. The FAU included both Friends and other conscientious objectors. Harold and Alberta's vegetarianism suggests to me something more in the realm of Gandhian non-violence.
Chapter 27: Maid Marian
22 September, 1949
Susan gives her imagination its head.
Mavis and David’s flat overlooked a bomb crater that was all that was left of the building next door. Susan thought it a depressing view, but Mavis said they'd chosen it on purpose because she wanted the light for her work. There was no curtain or shade on the window, so the morning sunlight was obstructed only by the inevitable haze in the air. “Eventually they’ll rebuild,” said Mavis. “But by then perhaps we’ll be able to afford a real studio for me.”
David and Teddy were in the kitchen playing some sort of game that involved a lot of zooming noises. “It’s going to be interesting trying to juggle taking care of Teddy after David starts teaching next week,” said Mavis. Susan thought she was lucky to have a husband who would take care of their son while she worked, but Mavis didn't seem to think there was anything odd about it.
Susan had brought her bow and arrows, and Mavis told her where to stand and which way to face. Susan fitted an arrow to the string. "Where should I aim?" she asked. "By the way, I suppose it's obvious, but you really mustn't step into the path of the arrow."
“I'll be careful. Aim at something a little above eye level, please."
Susan was facing the window, so she decided to aim at the sash. She lifted the bow and drew back the bowstring.
“How long can you hold that position?” Mavis asked.
“I’m not sure…I’m out of practice. Probably just a few minutes before my arm begins to twitch,” Susan said, sighting down the arrow.
"All right, I'll try to be quick. Please tell me when your arm’s about to give out.”
She could hear the scratch of Mavis’s pencil as she sketched. For the last several years Susan had concentrated her energies more on swimming than archery, and it had been a long time since she had held a bow. In fact, her bow and arrows were among the things she had retrieved from her parents’ attic. Now the bow felt good in her hands, and she resolved to start practicing again. She stood, trying to keep still but not stiff, and let her mind wander. She had competed in so many tournaments, here and in Narnia. Here she used a recurve bow, but in Narnia, though she had had many bows, she had most often used a longbow, the kind of bow a woman wasn’t supposed to be strong enough to wield. She wondered if she still could.
“You can relax now,” said Mavis. Susan lowered the bow, shook her arms one after the other, and shrugged her shoulders a few times to relieve the tension. As she moved her head, she found she missed the weight of her long hair; for tournaments in Narnia she had always worn it in a braid, which had eventually become long enough to brush the backs of her calves. In England, of course, she had never kept her hair so long: that was only practical with an army of maids to brush and dress it (and quite a nuisance even then). A few years ago she had cut her hair even shorter to make it easier to fit it all into a bathing cap. She hadn’t had a haircut since the accident and her hair was now nearly shoulder length again.
“I don’t suppose there’s a way I could sketch you from the front,” Mavis said.
“It wouldn’t be safe, not with an arrow on the string. Even a practice arrow can do a lot of damage, especially at this distance,” said Susan.
“Well, could you draw the bow without an arrow?” Mavis asked. “I can easily add it in later.” Susan put the arrow back in the quiver and drew the bow again. “Imagine you’re in a life-or-death situation,” Mavis said. “You’re aiming at something dangerous that you have to kill.”
Susan had never been in a battle, had rarely even been under direct physical threat. But she had seen battles, and battlefields. And she wasn’t Susan the Gentle now; she was Maid Marian. She remembered a giant that had nearly killed Peter. Lucy had been there with her cordial, but it was a near thing. It would have been better to shoot the giant before it even got close to Peter, so she imagined doing that. She shot it through the eye, and it fell like a tree. This felt amazingly good, but now that she had opened a door to her anger, she found it wasn’t enough. A Telmarine soldier with a big bronze sword was rushing at Lucy. She shot him dead. She saved Edmund from a couple of ogres and then from a Calormene swordsman. Why not Rabadash, too, while she was at it? He had hurt a lot of people, trying to get to her. She shot him in the gut. He deserved it. Then she remembered King Miraz, who had nearly killed Peter, so she shot him as well (it was most un-chivalrous to interfere in single combat, but she wasn’t a knight, and the stupid rules of chivalry didn’t apply to her). Some slavers had captured Lucy; she killed them all. Now, for some reason, her parents were in Narnia. What were they doing there? It didn’t matter. She killed everything that threatened them. Next she shot Jadis, the White Witch, who was about to do something terrible to Digory Kirke. After all, it would have been so much better if someone had done away with her in the beginning! Eustace was worth a few arrows, she decided, and while she was at it, she might as well save Jill from that giant snake, and Miss Plummer from some wild beasts. But that wasn’t as satisfying, so next she went after a werewolf that was trying to bite Edmund. And—
“You can relax now,” said Mavis. Susan lowered the bow. She was trembling and slightly out of breath. It was just as well she hadn’t had an arrow on the string, because several times she had nearly loosed the bowstring.
“What were you thinking about?” Mavis asked, curiously. “That was quite an extraordinary expression on your face.”
“I was thinking about my sister and my brothers. And my parents. About…about saving them. From…wild animals and things….”
If only there was a way to stop a railway train with a bow and arrow.
Mavis nodded. “I’m sorry. I suppose I shouldn’t have interrupted.”
“That’s all right, my arm was about to give out, anyway.”
The violence of her imagination disturbed her. She sought desperately for a happy memory. The Summer Festival: firelight, music, dancing through the night; Lucy, red-cheeked and out of breath, but clearly loving every minute; Edmund making a show of resisting some nymphs who were trying to crown him with oak leaves; Peter, who didn’t care for dancing, sitting by the bonfire laughing at the fauns' ribald jokes—
“If you’re tired, we can take a rest now,” said Mavis.
“Yes, that's a good idea,” said Susan, putting down the bow. She looked around for a place to sit and found a little divan that Mavis had pushed into the corner to give them room to work.
“You looked so far away,” said Mavis. “I’m like that myself sometimes.”
“Have you ever felt…as though the things you imagined were as real as real life? Or even realer?”
Mavis smiled. “Oh, yes. When I was a child, my sister used to worry about me all the time, worry that I didn’t know the difference between real life and the things I’d made up. I’m not certain I always did know the difference, but I don’t think it hurt me. It’s good to be able to see things that aren’t there, sometimes.”
“It is for me. The world can be a terrible place. So ugly and so unjust. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining a better one. Or imagining the things you’d like to do, but can’t. For whatever reason.”
Mavis nodded. “If you’re really tired, we don’t have to do any more today.”
“No, it’s all right. I’m ready to go on.”
Mavis sketched her in several more poses: in an open stance; in a closed stance; aiming up; aiming down; shooting from a kneeling position; drawing an arrow from the quiver; holding the bow ready, but not drawn. Susan didn’t imagine any more bloody rescues. With a bow and arrow in her hands, it was too dangerous. There would be plenty of time later, when she’d packed the bow away.
Chapter 28: Precipice
20 October, 1949
A chance meeting. A couple of conversations. Another talky chapter.
Before going over to Peggy’s house Susan took a detour to deliver a finished typescript to Moriarty. She knew she should really stop thinking of him as Moriarty, otherwise she was liable to slip and call him that to his face, but she could never remember his real name, which was unsuitably bland. Perhaps the nickname would amuse him, but there was no way to find out without risking offending him, so she compromised on calling him "Professor." Today she gave him the typescript and by the time she said good-bye she was smiling. She couldn't help it, everything the man said seemed funny, and all the more so because she couldn't tell whether he meant any of it seriously.
As she came out onto the street again a young man nearly barreled into her. She twisted to avoid colliding with him, lost her balance, and tottered for a moment, struggling to keep her feet. Damn these high heels!
The young man reached out and put a hand under her elbow to help steady her. “I’m awfully sorry, miss. Are you all right?” he asked.
“I think so, yes. And you?”
“Yes, I’m—I say, aren’t you Miss Pevensie?”
Susan looked at him perplexedly. He was about 20, with brown flyaway hair, a round face, and spectacles. A university student, probably. Perhaps a friend of Diana’s?
“Yes, I’m Susan Pevensie,” she said, “but I’m afraid I don’t…”
“Oh, it’s all right, I wouldn’t expect you to remember me. Julian Parker. I was at school with Edmund. You came to collect him once at the end of term, and I must say you made an impression on all of us!” He smiled.
“Oh, I see…” she said. The young man hadn’t heard about the accident, that was clear, or he wouldn’t be grinning at her like that. She felt a ringing in her ears, and when she looked down the pavement seemed to be very far away. Was she going to fall?
“I haven’t seen Ed in, oh, it must be more than two years—not since he left for Italy. How is he?” The fellow's expression changed to one of concern. “I say, are you feeling ill? Are you certain you're not hurt?”
She stared at him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. She put out a hand, touching the tips of her fingers to the wall of the building. I will not start blubbing out here on the street, she told herself fiercely. “It’s bad news, I’m afraid…” she said.
The next few minutes went by in a blur. Somehow Susan choked out an explanation, responded as best she could to the young man’s shocked sympathy, and politely refused his repeated offers of assistance. And then somehow she was walking away down the street. She couldn’t remember whether she had said a proper good-bye to—what was his name again, Jules?—but she didn’t look back. She walked on determinedly, taking large gulps of the air—which didn’t help much, as it was rather a foul day. After she had gone a couple of blocks she realized she was headed in the wrong direction. She turned around and began walking back the way she had come.
Susan arrived at Peggy’s house just as the American girl, Pearl, was climbing the area steps. “Oh, hi Miss Pevenisie,” said Pearl. “Are you here to see Mrs. Pole?”
Apparently Peggy had not yet succeeded in convincing Pearl to call her by her first name. “Yes, how is she?” Susan asked.
“She’s doing just fine,” said Pearl. “She sure does hate to be idle, though! I took her breakfast up to her this morning, and she said she can’t wait until the doctor says it’s okay for her to get up.”
“That sounds like Peggy,” said Susan. “Is Frances downstairs?”
“Yes, she's in the kitchen. Just go on down. Mrs. Barber says whenever somebody knocks on the front door she knows it must be a stranger!” She smiled and headed off wherever she was going. Susan did her best not to resent the girl’s cheerfulness.
Frances welcomed Susan into the kitchen. She said that Peggy was sleeping, but that if Susan didn’t mind waiting half an hour or so she could take her lunch up. “Poor Peggy,” said Frances. “The surgeon says two more days of bed rest before she can even think of getting up. The surgery seems to have been a success, though. We'll have to wait and see, of course, but it all looks good so far.”
Susan sat down at the table while Frances bustled around the kitchen, fixing lunch. She offered Susan a cup of tea. The house was quiet; all the boarders were out and the girls were at school. Susan was starting to regain her equilibrium. She asked how Uncle Harold was doing.
“He seems well, as far as I can tell. We finally had the piano tuned about a week ago, and on Sunday when I came home he was playing. It sounded quite good, but the poor man was awfully embarrassed that I’d heard him. I came straight into the kitchen instead of in at the front door, and he didn’t realize I was home until I came upstairs. He kept apologizing, said he didn’t think anybody was in the house. But I think I convinced him that his playing hadn’t bothered me. It does make me wonder what his wife was like. Was she really that sensitive?”
“I’m not the right person to ask about Alberta,” said Susan. “I don’t think I can be fair to her. But she was a very difficult person, even Uncle Harold will admit that.”
“A lot of people are difficult,” said Frances. “She sounds worse than difficult.”
“Well, she was manic-depressive,” said Susan.
“Ah. That explains a good deal…”
Susan nodded. “Yes, I suppose so. But it’s so hard to know what was the illness and what was just her personality….” They were quiet for a few minutes. Susan sipped her tea. Then she spoke again, hesitantly: “Frances, is it all right if I ask you something about your husband?”
“I suppose so. What did you want to know?” Frances was busy at the stove and her back was toward Susan, and that made it a little easier.
“I’m just wondering…after he was killed, how long was it before you stopped…before it stopped being…Oh, I’m not even sure what I’m trying to ask…”
“Do you mean, how long was it before it stopped feeling so shocking?”
“Maybe…It’s just, sometimes I feel that I’m all right, not happy, but managing, you know. Maybe for once I’m thinking of something besides the accident. And then I’m reminded of one of them…or all of them…and it hits me all over again and suddenly I feel that I’m coming apart. How long did it take for you to feel like you could count on…not coming apart, if you happened to be reminded?”
Frances turned around and looked at her intently. “Are you all right? Did something happen?”
Susan grimaced. “On my way over here I met an old school friend of Edmund’s who hadn’t heard about the accident.”
“Oh. Oh, dear, I"m sorry.”
“I managed to tell him what happened without breaking down, at least…But, how long did it take? Not to feel happy, or, or normal, but just to feel like you weren’t s-standing on the edge of a precipice?”
Frances thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. It’s hard to say, because it was the war and everything was topsy-turvy anyway. So many shocks, one after another, mostly bad, but some good. And of course nearly everybody I knew had lost somebody, or had somebody still out there, was dreading the telegram, you know….Nothing was normal...But I remember the first anniversary was very difficult, so it must have been at least a year before I felt that it wasn’t such a fresh wound. And even for a while after that, usually when I was thinking of something entirely different, like you say, and then got reminded. It's been more than five years, and even now, at times...I'm sorry, I know that's not what you want to hear.”
“Well, I did ask," Susan said. "Thank you. I'm sorry to pry."
"It's not prying. It's a perfectly reasonable question. I just don't quite know how to answer it."
"Well, I do appreciate you trying." Susan sighed. "On Monday it will be six months since the accident."
“I know,” said Frances. Of course she did. Jill was Frances’s sister, too, but somehow Susan had never thought much about it. She was about to say something when Frances went on: “You need to give yourself some time, Susie. You’ve been pushing yourself so hard. You’ve shouldered a gigantic burden with grace, and with practically no help. In six months you’ve gotten all of your family’s business settled, all by yourself. Not to mention the Professor’s. And then this awful business with your aunt. You’ve been so self-disciplined about it. If this is what you’re like when you’re prostrate with grief, you must be a real dynamo when you’re in top form!”
“I don’t feel like a dynamo,” Susan said. “I feel like a woman who's had to claw her way out from under a pile of...of rubbish with a few very valuable things mixed into it. And I’m not really finished, I still have all those boxes of letters that I haven’t sorted yet. Didn’t Peggy tell you she’s letting me store them in your attic until I have time to go through them?”
“Plenty of room up there. And letters are hard…It might be years before you can bear to look at them. And that's pretty minuscule, compared to what you've got done.”
“I’ve had a lot of help, though,” Susan insisted. “Without Peggy and Diana I’m sure I’d have gone bonkers by now. And a lot of other people have helped. Mr. and Mrs. Pickford, Marjorie, Jonathan….”
Frances sat down at the table opposite her. “All right, you’ve had help. It still amazes me, what you’ve managed to do. You’re very tough. I can see you’re the sort who likes to get things done. I don’t mean to minimize what you’ve lost, quite the opposite. I think you need to be a little easier on yourself, not expect so much. I can't predict exactly how it will be for you. I think you’ll be all right—eventually. But it won’t happen overnight, and you’ll have setbacks.”
Susan knew that Frances was right, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept it. If only she could sleep through the next few years and wake up with all of this safely, if sadly, in the remote past. Time for a change of subject, she decided. “Is Peggy’s lunch ready?”
"Almost. But while we're talking about this, I've been meaning to ask you, have you thought about what you’re going to do at Christmas?”
“Not really," Susan said carefully, willing her voice to be steady. "I suppose I’ll spend it with Uncle Harold, but I…well, I haven’t wanted to think about it. Last Christmas was the last time my family was all together. It wasn't a very happy Christmas. I think I quarreled with everybody, even Lucy. I've thought a lot about how...I would have done things differently, if I had known." The thought was exquisitely painful. For a moment she teetered on the brink of the precipice again.
“I'm sorry. I know about those thoughts, believe me. But still, you should make plans. Try to be with people who understand. Probably the less like your family Christmases the better, though. Make everything different.”
"It's hard to imagine how it could be anything else. Anything but different, I mean."
FYI, I think there are going to be two more chapters, or possibly two more multi-chapter episodes, one set at Christmas and one around the anniversary of the accident. Trying to get this finished up...
Chapter 29: Midnight Mass
Christmas Eve, 1949
Susan struggles with memories and faith.
I am not a theologian, and neither is Susan. If her thoughts on faith seem theologically unsophisticated, that should not be surprising.
Many thanks to constantlearner for the beta on this chapter and for help with the details of the Anglican Christmas Eve midnight mass.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Susan hadn’t set foot in a church since Professor Kirke’s funeral, back in April. As a child she had never been especially devout, and during the war she had begun to find it impossible to believe in a God who was benevolent, all-powerful, and concerned about human beings. How could such a God permit the horrors that were going on all over the world? If there was a God, she reasoned, he was remote and enigmatic, and there didn’t seem much point in trying to talk to him. He never talked back.
Of course she and Lucy had discussed this many times, and of course Lucy felt differently. Aslan had told both of them that if they searched, they would find him in this world. It didn’t take Susan long to realize what that meant, but it also didn’t seem to matter. Aslan—warm, immediate, Dionysian—seemed to have nothing to do with the faith in which they had been raised. If knowing Aslan was supposed to bring her closer to Christ, then the exercise had failed. In the end it had made it even more difficult for her to find joy or beauty in the church. This failure was one of the things that made her sometimes wonder, even now, whether Narnia had been only a childhood game.
Lucy said that she experienced the same joy when she took communion as she had when riding upon Aslan’s back or burying her face in his mane. For Susan the Eucharist was meaningless ritual. Eventually she decided that taking communion in that spirit was worse than not taking it at all, so a few years ago she had stopped. Mother and Father were upset, and clearly so was Peter, although he said nothing about it, not directly. Edmund, as usual, was harder to read. But Lucy agreed with her: “You’re right not to take communion just for the sake of appearances. I wish you felt different about it, and I hope one day you will do, but you shouldn’t take communion if it’s an empty gesture.” Soon after Susan and Lucy had this conversation Mother and Father stopped pestering her about it, and Susan knew that Lucy had persuaded them to leave her be.
Susan continued to go to services when she was at home, receiving only a blessing while the others took communion. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve was the only time she ever felt anything like what she was supposed to feel: the sense of being free of her own petty ego, the feeling of being part of something large and joyful. The whole family had always gone to midnight mass together, except for a few years when the boys were serving in the army. The Christmas after they returned from Narnia the first time, the Professor invited her parents up to stay for the holiday. They all walked two miles into the village for the service. She remembered singing carols during the walk back, feeling better than she had since returning to England. Even last year, when she was quarreling with everybody, she had gone with her family to the church in Wingrave, stepping into the light and the music and the peace, and for a little while she felt whole again. Now Christmas was fast approaching, and she was afraid that if she went to midnight mass her memories would overwhelm her. But at the same time she was convinced that she must go. For Lucy’s sake? Perhaps. Ironically, she knew that Lucy wouldn’t think that was a good enough reason.
She would go alone. Her friend Katy, who was Catholic, invited her to go to midnight mass at her church, but Susan didn’t feel comfortable with that even though she knew the service was very similar. Peggy and her household had gone to Richard’s family in Norfolk, leaving the house to the boarders, and indeed many of Susan’s friends had gone home for the holiday (she had turned down several invitations to visit). All of the friends who remained in London seemed to be nonconformists, or Catholics, or uninterested in religion. Her friend Sara was Jewish. Uncle Harold didn’t talk about religion, but Susan had never seen him in a church except for weddings and funerals, and she was reasonably certain that he was an atheist.
Diana disliked services. “If you really need me to go with you, of course I will,” she said, but she didn’t sound very eager.
“That’s all right. I know incense makes you sneeze,” said Susan.
Besides, Susan found the idea of being surrounded by strangers obscurely comforting. She didn’t want anybody watching her. She didn’t want anybody to notice whether or not she took communion.
This was the first time since she was very small that she had been in London at Christmas. She couldn’t remember where her family had gone to services when she was a little girl, but it must have been somewhere further from the center of the city. Eventually she decided to go to mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral. She didn’t want to go to some tiny parish church, where everybody would know she was not a regular member of the congregation. At St. Paul’s she would be lost in the crowd. And it was close by, and the service was supposed to be very beautiful, and the choir was famous.
And she felt a certain kinship with St. Paul’s. The cathedral was a survivor.
Susan was staying at Peggy’s house in Bloomsbury because the flat was full of Diana’s brother George, who was visiting. On Christmas Eve she sat up reading after supper until it was time to go. A friend who had been to midnight mass at St. Paul’s a couple of years ago had advised her to be there by 10:30, since there was likely to be a crowd. She wore a conservative navy blue dress of her mother’s that she had altered back in September, when she was stalling about looking for a job. She put on her coat and a red scarf that Lucy had knitted for her last Christmas.
Ordinarily she didn’t walk alone in London at this time of night, but the weather had been mild and many people were out, which made her feel more at ease. She joined a tributary of people flowing toward St. Paul’s, following it as it fed into larger and larger rivers of worshippers pouring into the cathedral.
She had been in St. Paul’s before, but never for services. She wasn’t there to admire the architecture or climb the dome, but as she came in through the great doors, she couldn’t help but stop and gape like a tourist, overwhelmed. She must have seemed at a loss, because an usher asked her if she was on her own and helped her find a seat.
The organ was playing quietly while people came in, shuffling and jostling, voices and footsteps echoing in the vast space. By 11:30 the cathedral was packed. The choir began to sing carols, and everybody joined in. They sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” and others. Susan liked to sing, and she hadn’t had much opportunity to sing since leaving school. She felt her spirit beginning to lift.
The last carol was “Away In a Manger,” and after the carol was finished, there was a peal of bells, followed by a short silence. Susan felt the stillness of anticipation in the crowd. The organ blared out and the choir began “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and again, Susan joined in. She saw the first acolyte coming up the aisle swinging the thurible; she heard a stifled sneeze from someone nearby and thought of Diana.
Susan watched the procession of priests. She couldn’t see much of them through the crowd, but she recognized Dean Matthews and Bishop Wand by their vestments. She knew little about the Bishop, but the Dean was a well-known figure in London, responsible for the fire watch at the cathedral during the Blitz. She had heard him on the radio a few times, and Lucy had sometimes read his Saturday sermons in the newspaper.
The service was familiar, with the same elements as at school and at the parish churches Susan had always attended. She knew when to stand, when to sit, when to bow her head, how and when to respond. The choir sang the Gloria, and the setting sounded familiar, though she couldn’t place it. But at the same time it all felt strange and unsettling. Despite all of the people crowded into the cathedral, she felt exposed. She was conscious of the vault above her, where everything echoed and amplified, the noise filling up the empty space. It ought to feel open and airy, but it didn’t. She felt the mass of the building around her.
Now a deacon was reading from Isaiah:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
It made her think of Narnia, where Beasts lived together (although she had never known a lion to eat straw), and where the earth and the waters rang with Aslan’s voice. Why was it so hard to believe it could be true here as well?
The service went on: she sat, stood, responded.
Dean Matthews preached his sermon on Christ’s birth, and his life, as revelation. He said that Christ was not a teacher of truths, but was Himself the truth, the life of the Eternal God translated into the terms of human existence. He said that John’s declaration that God is love was at the heart of the revelation. “Yet even this can be a dead formula,” he said. “What do we mean by ‘love’? The word may be a blank to be filled up in many different ways. It is true only when we make the abstract term concrete by referring it to love incarnate in the Christ.” Susan remembered Aslan’s love, so warm and palpable, but she couldn’t seem to feel Christ’s love in the same way. She couldn’t make the abstract concrete.
The Dean spoke next of how an individual might experience revelation: “If we are quiet enough and have our attention fastened on the Eternal it may be that just for a moment time stands still and He finds us.” But then he said that one could not expect never to falter, that there would be setbacks on the pilgrimage to seek union with God. More work to do, Susan thought ruefully. No easy answers. But she knew that already. If it were only a matter of doing the work, if she knew for certain that all her striving would be rewarded, she wouldn’t mind it.
As Susan said the creed she tried to think about what the words meant, but they flowed by too fast, feeling rote. Her mouth knew them better than her mind or her heart did. The moment was slipping away, and she wasn’t feeling the comfort and peace she had hoped for.
The service rolled on inexorably. Bishop Wand spoke the confession:
…Christ the light of the world has come to dispel the darkness of our hearts. Let us turn to the light and confess our sins.
What were her sins? She had not indulged any sins of the flesh recently, that was for certain. Her sin was and always had been faithlessness. It was not something she could correct simply by renouncing it; her lack of faith was a void, and it would take more than an act of will to fill it. She might pray, but as long as she did not trust in an answer, she would not receive one. She had been knocking her head against this paradox for years: For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. That couldn’t mean what it sounded like. The Dean in his sermon had implied that one could recover from a loss of faith, that a setback needn’t spell doom.
She was roused from her thoughts by the lady next to her tapping her shoulder gently. For a moment Susan was confused, and then she realized that the lady was offering her hand for the Peace. The lady was middle-aged, with crisp grey hair and a bright, cheerful look that drew a smile from Susan as they shook hands.
Susan then turned and shook hands with the lady on her other side, who was there with her son, a boy about seven or eight years old. He was sitting at the end of the row and had nobody to greet but his mother, so Susan held out her hand to him. As they shook, his solemn face woke into a dimpled smile. “It’s the first time I’ve let him stay up so late,” his mother whispered conspiratorially.
The bishop told the story of Jesus sharing the bread and wine. Then they said the Lord’s Prayer. The bishop was blessing the host, and soon people would start going forward to take communion. The ushers began guiding people into the aisles. Susan hesitated, and as the grey-haired lady moved to join the line of people going up to the altar, she followed.
The choir began to sing carols again, not the ones that everybody knew, but more obscure ones. As Susan got closer to the front, they were singing one that Susan had heard only once or twice before:
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.
Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man's nature
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.
Susan thought it was a very Narnian carol: lilting and dancelike, sweet, but earthy, not prettified or sentimental: joy, love. This have I done for my true love. She clung to that thought as she made her way slowly forward. If only she had the room and the freedom to dance….
In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.
There were so many people, and the priests and acolytes were very busy. Nobody was watching her, nobody would notice if she drifted back to her seat without taking communion. Or she could kneel and receive a blessing instead, as she had done when she went to services with her family.
Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.
The moment of indecision passed. She knelt and held out her hands for the wafer. She was still holding it when the cup came to her a moment later, and after a flash of panic when she thought she might disgrace herself by rising and backing away, she let the priest hold it to her lips while she took a sip. This is my blood. She thought of how she and Lucy had wiped the blood from Aslan’s face, of those terrible hours of grief and horror that she had tried so hard to forget, and that she had revisited so often since the train crash. She remained kneeling for a moment, eyes closed. The wafer was still in her hand, and she put it in her mouth; it melted away quickly. Communion? What did all of these other people feel? I’m trying, she thought.
She stood and went back to her seat, and she sat with her head bowed until it was time for the Prayer of Thanksgiving. The service was almost over. She joined in singing “Silent Night.” The celebrants recessed, and the worshippers followed, beginning to empty the cathedral.
Susan wished her neighbors a Merry Christmas. The young mother smiled and chattered about her preparations for Christmas dinner as she buttoned her son’s coat. The boy was yawning. The grey-haired lady introduced herself as Mrs. Burke. She asked if Susan was by herself, and when Susan said she was, Mrs. Burke asked which way she was walking. Susan told her she was going to Bloomsbury, and Mrs. Burke said “You’re not far out of our way then. Mr. Burke and I would be happy to walk with you. You really oughtn’t to be out alone, you know.” She said it in such a pleasant way, not scolding or disapproving, that Susan couldn’t take offense, and they left the cathedral together. The south churchyard was full of people, all of whom seemed to be in very good spirits. People wished her a Merry Christmas, and she echoed them.
Mr. Burke said very little as they walked, but Mrs. Burke asked about her family, and Susan gave her the answer that she usually gave strangers, saying that she was an orphan. “Oh, what a shame,” said Mrs. Burke, sympathetically. “Well, a pretty girl like you won’t be alone for very long, I’m sure.”
Mrs. Burke was very kind, and even though Susan found that sort of comment wearying—she had heard it many times during the past months—she smiled and said, “I hope not. And I have my uncle. He’s been very good to me.” This last seemed to relieve Mrs. Burke’s mind considerably.
When they got to Peggy’s house Susan saw that a light was on in the front room. She bid the Burkes good night and thanked them for walking her home. Then she went inside to find Uncle Harold sitting at a table in the front room. He was in his shirtsleeves, playing a game of patience.
He looked up from his cards. “Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Merry Christmas,” she replied. “Were you waiting up for me?”
“Yes. I thought you might want some company. But if you’d rather be alone, I’ll understand.”
“No, I’m glad you stayed up. Thank you,” she said, coming up beside him. She leaned over the back of his chair and hugged him from behind, resting her cheek on the top of his head.
“Did it help, going to the service?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Susan said. “I keep hoping I’ll be…struck by a bolt from the blue, that I’ll have some sort of moment of revelation and after that everything will be better. Dean Matthews talked about that in his sermon, actually, about that moment of revelation, but he seemed to think it usually doesn’t happen that way, that the whole business of faith is messier than that.”
“I’ve never been much for revelation, or faith,” Harold said. “Too much the rationalist, I’m afraid. Your mother and I used to argue about it.”
Susan thought of some of the arguments she’d had with Lucy. “Funny how different siblings can be,” she said.
She felt Uncle Harold nod. “It’s a good thing that you don’t need to understand people perfectly in order to love them,” he said.
She sighed. “I miss them all so much,” she said. “Every day.”
“So do I,” he said.
Susan felt a rush of affection for her uncle, gratitude for his quiet comfort. He didn’t seem to want to convince her of anything, and that was a relief. She felt safe with him. He began to sweep the cards into a pile, but she said “Oh, you don’t need to do that. I don’t want to go to bed just yet, but I don’t much feel like talking. Do you mind if I sit with you while you play?”
“Of course not,” he said. He straightened the disordered cards into their rows.
She sat down next to him at the table. After a moment’s hesitation, she leaned her head against his shoulder and watched idly as he went on with his game. “You can put that nine on the ten of hearts,” she said, pointing. He patted her hand and went on playing.
This chapter took a lot of research, since I am not an Anglican and the only midnight mass I've ever attended was an Episcopal service more than 25 years ago. So here are some of my sources.
St. Paul's Cathedral
This is what Susan means by "the cathedral was a survivor."
This video of a recent mass commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I gave me some idea of what the procession might look like.
I was lucky enough to find this program for a service held on Christmas Day 1951 at St. Paul's.
Here's a glossary of terms used in the Anglican church.
When looking for information online, I found out that somebody had already asked one of my questions and gotten answers for me! The discussion here was very useful.
Biblical quotes are from the 1769 (Standard Version) of the King James Bible.
Not surprisingly, the Anglican church publishes Christmas liturgy.
The sermon consists of summaries and direct quotations from a "Christmas Meditation" by Dr. W.R. Matthews, who was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral for more than 30 years. It was originally published in the Daily Independent, where his "Saturday Sermons" were published weekly from the late 1940's until his death in 1973. The book I have, Christian Meditations, is a collection of these pieces but doesn't give original publication dates for any of them. I haven't been able to find a good biography of him online that's not behind a paywall, but there's some biographical information about him here, in a memorial for his eldest son. I wanted to work him into the story a little more, but couldn't figure out a way to do it that didn't seem corny.
"Tomorrow shall be my dancing day" is a favorite of mine. It's such an unusual carol in taking the point of view of Jesus, and I love the imagery of the dance. There are more verses, but these days typically only the first four are used.
There are a number of settings, but I am thinking here of the traditional tune. Here you can find sheet music and/or an mp3.
Chapter 30: Exiles' Christmas
Christmas Day, 1949
A motley group sits down together for Christmas dinner.
Despite getting to bed late, Susan woke up early on Christmas morning. She went downstairs to get herself some breakfast, not expecting to see anybody, since Peggy, Richard, Frances, and Frances’s daughters had all gone to the Poles’ house in Norfolk for the holiday. None of the adults seemed very keen on the idea—Susan had heard many hints about friction and antagonism in the Pole family over the past months—but as it was the first Christmas after Jill’s death they all knew that there was no way to get out of it.
As it turned out, the kitchen wasn’t empty: Pearl was there at the stove, wielding a large frying pan. “Merry Christmas!” Pearl said. “I’m making fried eggs. Do you want some? I made a pot of coffee, too.” She broke two more eggs into the pan. "I make mine over easy. Is that okay?"
Susan thanked her, poured herself a cup of coffee, and sat at the kitchen table while Pearl finished cooking the eggs. “You’re up early,” Susan said.
“I’m going to church with Marjorie Preston this morning. We both go to the Methodist church.”
“Oh, I didn’t even realize you’d met,” said Susan.
Pearl turned and smiled. “She came over a few days ago to bring the turkey, and we just hit it off,” she said. Susan nodded. A few weeks ago Susan had got a telephone call from Marjorie, who had started university in London that autumn. Susan had seen her a couple of times over the past few months. It turned out that the rest of her family was in Canada visiting Mrs. Preston’s brother, whom they had not seen since before the war and who was very ill. They wouldn’t be home until after the holiday. The family had a regular arrangement with a farmer who supplied them with a Christmas turkey each year, and now Marjorie had custody of the turkey. And so Marjorie (and the turkey) were joining them for Christmas dinner.
“I’m glad she’s making new friends,” Susan said. “She’s…she and my sister were very close.”
“Yes, she told me,” said Pearl. Neither of them spoke for a moment. Pearl slid the eggs out of the pan onto two plates, plucked a couple of pieces of toast out of the toaster, and brought everything over to the table.
“I suppose this is your first Christmas away from your family,” Susan said, as Pearl sat down.
“Well, my oldest brother was in the army during the war. He was here in England part of the time. He really liked it here, he said people were so nice to him….And then he went to France, of course. But the rest of the family was together, so even though we missed him, it wasn’t too bad. Not like your—” Pearl stopped awkwardly.
“Yes, there were a couple of years one or the other of my brothers wasn’t home at Christmas because of the war,” said Susan, carefully stepping them back from the always-yawning precipice. Pearl nodded.
They talked as they ate. After a little while Marjorie knocked at the kitchen door. Pearl got her coat and hat, and the two of them went away together, chattering non-stop. Susan felt a slight pang, thinking of Lucy, but it was more sweet than bitter.
Susan had been surprised when she learned that Pearl hadn’t had another invitation to Christmas dinner; she thought surely the girl must have made a few friends by now. But Peggy shook her head when she asked about it and said that Pearl didn’t seem to have made any close friends. “I’m not certain why. I do know she’s had a very strict upbringing: no drinking, no parties. It sounds as though her entire social life revolved around her church. I think she’s done quite well here, all things considered, but she’d probably have an easier time making friends if she could bring herself to set foot in a pub,” Peggy said. So, Susan told herself, it would be a very good thing if Pearl could make a friend of Marjorie. Good for both of them.
After a while Susan finished her coffee and went upstairs to get a book. It was so odd to spend Christmas morning this way. No tree, no presents. No Lucy, no Edmund, no….Better not dwell on that. She brought her book back down to the kitchen and switched from coffee to tea. About an hour later Uncle Harold came down, and then a few minutes later Arup.
Susan didn’t know Arup well and so had not been sure how he would react when she asked him about Christmas dinner a few weeks earlier. But he assured her that it wouldn’t be his first: “I had friends growing up who were C of E, you know,” he told her, a bit defensively. Then, to Susan’s surprise, he wrote to his mother to ask for the recipe for a rice dish that he thought would be a good addition to the table. Uncle Harold, whom Peggy had left in charge of the kitchen, promised to do his best with it. A few days before the holiday Arup went on an expedition to the East End, searching for a shop another Indian student had told him about. He came back triumphantly with cashews, clarified butter, yoghurt, spices, a sack of some sort of special rice, and several jars of what he said were pickles, but which were unlike any pickle Susan had ever tasted. He put the pickles aside in the pantry, as he was the only one who liked them. Now he and Uncle Harold seemed to be arguing about some political issue that, as far as Susan could tell, they more or less agreed upon. It was a friendly argument, at least. After listening carefully for another moment she realized that they were talking about Passport to Pimlico and couldn’t help but laugh out loud, which didn't seem to disrupt the conversation at all.
Susan looked at the clock. If they were to eat by 2:00, she would have to get the turkey in the oven soon. Arup had already declared himself useless in the kitchen, and of course Uncle Harold knew next to nothing about cooking meat. So Susan rolled up her sleeves, put on an apron, and started slicing onions for the dressing. By the time she had the turkey stuffed and in the oven, Pearl and Marjorie had returned, both red-cheeked and fizzing with joyous energy. The mood in the kitchen picked up. Not long after that the bell rang upstairs, and Susan went up to open the front door for Diana and George. Susan didn’t know much about Diana’s family except that they were very upper class, very stodgy, and very disappointed in Diana. Now that Diana was over 21 she declared she had no reason to continue to try to keep in their good books, but she had planned to go to her family at Christmas because she wanted to see George, who was 19 and “still trapped,” as she put it. And then a few days before Christmas, without warning, George arrived at the flat. Susan wasn’t home when he turned up, and whatever explanation he had given Diana was over and done with by the time she got back. All Susan knew was that they weren’t going home after all. She didn’t ask why. Unlike Diana, George didn’t seem to be much of a talker.
Everybody who was coming to dinner was here, now. It was feeling a bit like Christmas, finally.
None of them had ever been in charge of a Christmas dinner before, so they had divided up the preparations. The previous afternoon Susan had made mince pies while Pearl made a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie (her mother had also sent recipes, as well as some of the ingredients that were hard to find in London). It was just as well to have so many pies, as there would be no Christmas pudding this year in deference to the teetotalers. “Thank God!” said Diana. “Is it all right now to admit that I hate the stuff?”
Uncle Harold began on the rice dish, which Susan had to admit smelled very good. Later on he would do the potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Pearl began making cranberry sauce, again from a recipe her mother had sent. Susan watched her and Marjorie, who was standing next to her as she stirred the sauce. They were whispering about something, heads bent together, one ginger, the other brunette. They need Lucy for a blond, Susan thought.
Arup and George went up to the dining room to get a fire going in the grate, and when they finished with that they went outside for a smoke. They were up at the top of the area steps, and Susan could hear them talking and laughing.
Susan sighed. Except for Uncle Harold, all of these people could be home with their families if they really wanted to be. Pearl and Arup had both traveled thousands of miles, leaving their families behind. And George and Diana apparently couldn’t stand to be with their parents even at Christmas. Richard and Frances went home to their family but thought of it as an ordeal. Marjorie could have gone to Canada with her parents, and she had chosen to stay—but Susan knew it wasn’t fair to think of it that way, that it wouldn't have made sense for Marjorie to abandon her first term of university to see an uncle she barely knew.
Susan knew she was just working herself up into a state. Why?
Because she knew that last Christmas going home had felt like a duty to her. She had spent most of the few days she was at home wishing she was somewhere else. And why was that? Because she felt their critical eyes upon her. They didn’t understand her, they were disappointed in her, they nagged her. She felt they weren't being fair to her, that they didn't even try to look at things from her point of view. Yes, all of that was true. But it was also true that being with her family made her question the life she was leading, made her feel frivolous and directionless. It reminded her of things she didn’t want to think about. Sometimes their criticisms of her hurt because they were fair.
She cringed inwardly as she thought of some of the things she had said to Lucy last Christmas, about taking better care of her appearance. And then later, when her father said something critical about the way Susan was dressed, she gave him the silent treatment for a whole afternoon, even after he’d apologized. During Christmas dinner Edmund began telling her about a play in London he thought she ought to go see, but she wasn’t paying attention and eventually he ground to a halt, saying, “Of course, if you’re not interested…” And she replied, “Not really, no,” ignoring his hurt expression. After dinner her mother reached up to smooth a wisp of hair away from her face, and she jerked away, saying “Oh for heaven's sake, Mother, I’m not a child!” And the next day when Peter was talking about something he’d been doing at Oxford—she couldn’t even remember now what it was—she rolled her eyes and told him not to be so pompous.
She couldn’t deny that some of the estrangement between her and her family had been her own doing. All the things they had quarreled about now seemed so petty. She could have mended the situation if she had wanted to badly enough. It was all such a waste.
“I can see I’m in the way here,” said Diana, breaking into Susan's thoughts. “Has anybody done anything about setting the table?” Nobody had, so Diana and Susan went upstairs to the dining room to get the table ready. Diana had very particular ideas about how a table should be set. Susan, who had her own ideas, decided it wasn’t worth arguing about.
“Susan, are you all right?” Diana asked.
Susan looked at her friend, startled. “Well, no, I’m not,” she said. Diana raised her eyebrows. “I’m thinking about last Christmas, that’s all,” Susan added.
“Yes. And…having regrets.”
“I suppose we all do.”
Susan almost asked if Diana regretted not going home this year, but stopped herself. "Well, if I've learned anything, it's never to assume there will always be time to make it up later," she said.
“I was thinking of that just this morning,” Diana said, surprising her again. “I wonder if George and I ought to go home after all. I think...I’ll try to persuade him to take the train up tomorrow.”
“That's good. I hope it goes well,” Susan said.
Diana nodded, but didn’t seem to want to say more. “Perhaps we can sing some carols later, if you can convince your uncle to play the piano for us,” she suggested.
“That’s a good idea. It’ll make it feel more like Christmas.”
Diana looked at her shrewdly and took her arm. “Come in here,” she said. She led Susan into the front room, where George and Arup were were putting up the Christmas tree that Diana and George had brought with them. They had it in front of the window, right next to the piano.
“Oh, Diana…” Susan said.
“We left it out on the area steps while you let us in, for a surprise. Don’t tell the others before they see it,” Diana said severely.
George grinned. “I’ll go fetch the box of decorations,” he said.
Susan looked at Diana, who was wearing an expression that forbade sentimentality.
“It’s just a small tree….” Diana said.
“Did you bring crackers, too?” Susan asked.
“Of course,” said Diana.
“My dear, you think of everything!”
A short while later Pearl and Marjorie came upstairs to see what was going on. Marjorie squealed in delight when she saw the tree, and Pearl knelt down and started rummaging through the box of decorations. Susan left them to it and went down to the kitchen to keep Uncle Harold company. He set her to peeling potatoes. “Diana wants you to play for us later so we can sing some carols,” she warned him.
“Oh she does, does she? Well, I’m sure I can manage to oblige,” he said.
When the turkey was ready they brought everything upstairs to the dining room. Eventually they were all settled at the table. Pearl had never seen Christmas crackers before; she said they were cute.
“I feel like the housemaster of a very unusual boarding school,” said Uncle Harold.
It turned out that Susan was the only one of them who had ever carved a large bird, so she did the honors.
“May I say Grace?” asked Pearl, and Diana, who was sitting across the table from her, put down her fork guiltily. They joined hands around the table. Susan closed her eyes as Pearl spoke: “Bless us, O Lord, for these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Help us to be mindful of all our blessings on this Christmas Day, and of the needs of those who have less than we do. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.”
There was a chorus of Amens, and a “hear, hear” from Arup.
“God bless us, every one,” said Diana. "Ow! Don't pinch me, George!"
Susan remembered what Frances had said to her about celebrating Christmas. Well, this is certainly different, she thought. And at that moment, it felt right.
Chapter 31: Anniversary
22-23 April, 1950
A year after the accident, Susan visits her family.
On Saturday when Susan got up Diana was still asleep, having stayed out late dancing with some friends from work the evening before. Susan packed her small valise and tiptoed into the other room so as not to wake her. She decided she had plenty of time to visit Peggy before going to catch her train.
Peggy and Frances were both in the kitchen when she arrived. Susan gave Peggy the box of digestive biscuits she’d bought on the way over. Peggy took them. “I’m all right this morning,” she said. “At least, I’ve only been sick once.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want you to run out. You never know when you’ll need them.”
“With any luck you’ll be able to keep down some tea and toast later,” said Frances.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’m not an invalid!” Peggy exclaimed.
Peggy tried to be nonchalant, but Susan knew she was nervous. She was taking it as a good sign that the morning sickness was much worse than it had been with her previous pregnancies: it was a sign that something was different. But she was still only nine weeks along, and once before she had got all the way to 14 weeks. Susan knew there was only so much she could do to reassure her friend.
“Is Uncle Harold here?”
“He’s gone out already,” said Frances.
“You couldn’t persuade him to go with you?” Peggy asked.
“No. I didn’t feel like pressing, anyway. He’ll do what’s best for him,” Susan said. They discussed the doings of the household over tea and muffins. Eventually Susan said she had to be going.
In Oxford Jonathan met her at the station. He looked pale and his expression was solemn, but he smiled when she shook his hand. After an awkward moment she asked him what he was working on. He explained that he was expecting to take his degree at the end of term and was planning on postgraduate work, and as he talked about his work she saw for the first time an element of wry humor that she had never detected before. He was studying Classics—history, not philosophy, but in some obscure way he reminded her of the professor.
Jonathan took her up to Magdalen for lunch with some friends of Peter and Edmund—not only their Oxford friends, but some of their old school friends as well. It was a very well-behaved group of young men (the fellow she had slapped after the funeral hadn’t been invited), and it was, all things considered, a pleasant gathering. The air of mourning was muted, but of course there were reminiscences. Some of the stories the men told showed Susan a different side of each of her brothers, though there were no big revelations.
A whole year, Susan thought. It seemed impossible.
After lunch she went to the churchyard on her own. She hadn’t been to visit her brothers’ graves since the funeral. There hadn't seemed to be any point; whatever had made them who they were wasn’t here in the ground. But now she wanted to talk to them, and this seemed as good a place as any.
There was no place to sit right near the graves, so she stood with her head bowed. It probably looked like she was praying. It was awkward to begin, but once she got going, the words started to flow. She told Peter about her new job with the International Tracing Service, helping war refugees track down missing family members. It was hard work, draining work, but it made her feel useful. “I wish I could talk to you about it, really talk, I mean. I remember…how you and I worked together. You know what I’m talking about. We had the same goals. We were partners, trying to build something….something good and worthwhile. I’ve missed that, even before...the last year. Oh, damn…” She felt herself starting to slip, so she drew a deep breath, righting herself, and went on: “But the main thing I want to say, I mean, to promise, is that no matter what happens, I’ll never go back to the life I was leading a year ago. Everything is different. I don’t take anything for granted, and I’m trying to do things that matter. I wish you were here with me, because you always have such a good sense of that—of what matters.”
She turned away from the graves and walked around a little bit, trying to pull herself together. Then she came back and sat down in the grass, not worrying about her skirt. “Ed…” she cleared her throat. “A few days ago I was thinking about something you said to me…all those years ago…when I told you that nobody cared what was inside me, that no man would ever want me except as a prize. And you said that my looks were the least beautiful thing about me, and any man with sense would realize that. It was such a funny thing to say, really. But you always understood how I felt about that, about being called beautiful as though it were the only important thing about me. I don’t think I ever told you how much I appreciated that…and how you tried to protect me, even though that’s not usually a little brother’s job! It really ought to have been the other way around, you know. I ought to have done a better job of protecting you. I hated to see you hurt over and over again, but I didn’t always know what to do about it…” She found she had lost the thread, but she had said the pith of what she had come to say, so she started telling her brothers about the gathering that afternoon, what their friends had said. She told them about the books she was reading, going to the cinema with her friends, all the sorts of things you might talk about when chatting with someone you love.
Jonathan and two of Edmund’s friends, Nicky and Tom, took Susan out for a late tea. After that she caught the bus to Aylesford, where she could get another bus to Wingrave. She didn’t feel like reading, so she passed the time thinking about the other Friends of Narnia.
She had dismissed Polly Plummer as an eccentric old maid; now she felt chagrined at having judged her so. Susan had never thought of the professor’s life as empty and unfulfilled; why should she think of Miss Plummer’s that way? Of course, many women of Miss Plummer’s generation hadn’t married because of the war, and now Susan wondered whether it had been her choice never to marry. She wondered, too, about Miss Plummer’s friendship with the professor. Had they ever been lovers? Susan thought probably not, but from what she had seen they were friendlier, and fonder, than many of the old married couples she knew.
Susan wasn’t sure where things had gone wrong between herself and Professor Kirke. For a long time she had blamed him for drawing away from her, but she knew now that it probably wasn’t as simple as all that. If she had gone to him and asked what was wrong, what had changed, would it have made a difference? Perhaps. At the time it hadn’t seemed worth the risk of being rebuffed. But how could she have been afraid of that reaction from a man whom she had never seen treat anybody unkindly? She had no reason to fear him, unless she was afraid of what he might show her about herself.
She had been unfair to Eustace as well. He had been such an awful pill when they were younger, such an obnoxious little pest. She had avoided him as much as possible and had seen no reason to change that habit, even when Lucy urged her to try to get to know the “new Eustace.” Why had she persisted in judging him by things he had said and done when he was seven or eight years old? Probably because it had seemed too much effort to give him a chance to show he'd changed. Some of the things Uncle Harold had told her about Eustace recently had surprised her: for example, that during the last couple of years, whenever he had been at home, he had been more successful than Harold at helping Alberta to function normally. There had to be more to him than Susan had realized.
On the other hand, she had tried to be friendly to Jill Pole. She had made several overtures to her, and Jill had always snubbed her, right from the beginning. Why? She couldn’t remember much about the first time they had met, only that Eustace and Lucy were there as well. If she had been cutting to Eustace, that might explain why Jill had taken such a dislike to her. And now, from talking to Peggy and Frances, Susan knew a lot more about how difficult Jill’s life at home had been.
Perhaps the great lesson of the last year was that she should never assume that she knew what was going on inside other people’s lives.
She arrived in Wingrave late. The Pickfords were expecting her and had kept supper warm for her. They put her up for the night, and in the morning they all went to services at the little village church. She took communion, even though she still wasn’t certain it was the right thing to do.
After the service she went out to the graveyard and sat on a stone bench. The graveyard was well kept and peaceful. Somehow the headstones for Mother, Father, and Lucy looked to her as though they had been there for a long time, even though it had only been a year. Time behaved in funny ways, even here in England. It was a cool, windy day, with the sun shining fitfully through the clouds. She closed her eyes.
“Father…I thought you ought to know that I’m planning to go to university in the autumn. I’m studying for entrance exams. I don’t know where I’ll be exactly, but I’d like to stay in London if I can. Uncle Harold has promised to help me out financially.” She sighed. “I wish you’d encouraged me more, Father. I don’t know why you didn’t believe I had a brain worth using. Or maybe I just misunderstood you, and you were talking about how I was doing at school, and not what you thought I could do. I hope that was it….” She faltered. Why was it still so difficult to talk to her father? It wasn’t as though he was going to break in and contradict her, or say something snide, the way he had done when he was alive. Anyway, what did she really want to say to him? “I’m not sure what you would want me to be doing with my life, Father. But I’m taking care of myself. You don’t need to worry about me.” She sat there for a moment, tears stinging her eyelids.
Then she let out a breath and started telling Mother about Uncle Harold. He was having a difficult time, but Susan thought he was managing to hold himself together. “Peggy says he’s been playing the piano a lot. She thinks that’s a good sign. His friends keep trying to fix him up with women, but he says he’s not ready for that, and I don’t blame him. I’ve learned so much about him in the last year….and he’s told me a lot about you, things I would never have guessed. I wish I had asked you about what it was like for you, after your mother and your brothers died. Uncle Harold said you delayed marrying father for nearly two years because you had promised your father not to leave home until Harold was 16 and could look after himself. I don’t understand why you never wanted to talk about difficult things; I suppose you felt there was no sense in dwelling on what couldn’t be helped. But it might have helped me, to know….in any case, I’m sorry I ever thought you were weak.” She thought Mother would like to know that some of her friends were having babies, so she talked about Mavis and her new baby girl, Sylvia, and about Peggy’s pregnancy. “It’s early days yet, but I think…well, I hope it will be all right.”
She spent a long time talking to Lucy, an echo of their old, rambling conversations. It was easier with Lucy than any of the others to imagine her talking back. She told her about her new friends and the latest gossip about some of their old friends; she told her about Marjorie and Pearl becoming great friends. She told her about going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Finally, she came to a halt and took a deep breath. “And…Lucy, I do remember Narnia. I never really forgot, but in the last year I’ve thought about it more often than I have since we came back that second time. For years I couldn’t bear to think about it at all, and I couldn’t understand why you all wanted to talk about it when it was lost forever. But now I like to imagine sometimes that the reason you’re not here is that you’ve all gone back to Narnia…Mother and Father, too…that you’re happy there, all together, dancing with fauns and….all that. I look at your sketchbooks sometimes, and they help me to remember. I have to remember, because I’m the only one alive now who does. And I don’t want to forget, not any more.”
There was no answer, of course, but the tight feeling in her chest grew a little less. She took out a handkerchief and carefully wiped her eyes. She sat for a few minutes in silence, listening. When she heard the creak of the gate she stood. Mr. Pickford had come to drive her to the train station.
Susan bid Mrs. Pickford goodbye and promised to keep in touch. After Mr. Pickford put her on the train she waved to him from the window to indicate that she was settled. He stood there stolidly on the platform until the train began to move out of the station. She sank back in her seat and closed her eyes.
She was feeling her way forward a step at a time. She had no roadmap and no guide. There were moments, still, when her loss felt fresh and overwhelming, a sorrow so piercing she didn’t think she could bear it for another second.
There was a hole in her world, and she knew there always would be some sort of scar. But she no longer feared that the years ahead of her would be empty. She would fill them with friendship, study, travel, work. Perhaps one day she would fall in love, marry, have children, but she didn't intend to plan her life around that possibility.
And one day, inevitably, she would die.
Perhaps it was morbid to be so aware of her own death, to think of life as defined by death. But over the last year she had thought often about what she would leave behind her when she died. She didn’t want it to be nothing. Whatever happened, Susan was determined to find a way to accomplish something of real and lasting worth, something that would outlive her, though she had no idea yet what it would be.
She would make her survival count for something.
The International Tracing Service had moved to Germany by 1950, but I'm guessing that in those days of paper records they must have had people working for them in other places. And many people escaping the Nazis came through England before the war.