The fire is warm against her leg, crackling as the sun sets and the cool ease in. The days are getting warmer, but the nights still get chilly, and for the moment they still light the fire to keep the house warm, especially with a new baby. Henry is five days old, sleeping peacefully in the bassinette that she brought downstairs, swaddled lightly to balance out the warmth of the fire. Her mother is rocking in her chair on the other side of the fireplace, her eyes closed peacefully after a day working the yard and cleaning the house.
“Mama?” asks Mary, getting Laura’s attention from where she sits on the floor drawing.
“Yes my girl?” she asks. She’s exhausted, but this is the first time she’s been out of her room since the birth, and she’s so sick of the same four walls. She sleeps when the baby sleeps – the golden rule of new motherhood – but even in her tired state she can feel how bored she is. So she had brought herself downstairs today to sit in the chair by the fire and read a little in the quiet times. Her mother still refuses to let her help with anything, even the cooking, and if she was worried before about Charles hovering, he was evidently the least of her worries.
Her husband. Oh, that kind man. He had returned to work unhappily, reluctant to leave her and the baby for even a moment. He wants to dote on her and fawn over Henry, and hates that he has to go back to the press and keep their circulation afloat.
When Mary doesn’t continue Laura opens her eyes and looks at her. She has her head bowed and is intently tracing a rudimentary profile that Charles had taught her to do. She looks contemplative.
“What is it, my lovely girl?” she asks. Mary still doesn’t look up, but she does at least answer.
“When Henry grows up, he’s going to call Charles Dad, isn’t he?”
Laura starts a little. Mary rarely calls Charles by his first name. In fact, she hardly refers to him by name at all. Since the wedding it was strange to call her new stepfather Mr Lattimer, but they had never pressured her to call him her father either; Charles had insisted that Mary should not feel obligated, and Laura had agreed. Perhaps that wasn’t common, but it was what they both wanted; Mary could call him whatever she liked, so long as it was her choice. Which left his name in a kind of limbo, and as such Mary just avoided naming him all together.
“Yes he will” answers Laura softly, having a feeling where this is going. “Charles is his father, so Henry will call him that”
Mary just nods, her eyes still on her page. Despite her distraction she is doing a marvellous job. Laura is proud of how well her art is improving under Charles’ tutelage.
“It’s probably good that Henry was a boy” she mutters.
The statement startles Laura. It seems so out of place, and completely without provocation. She also doesn’t know what Mary could mean; she is not a vicious child, nor is she jealous. She hasn’t had to share anything yet – save for their undivided attention perhaps – but even so she is unfailingly kind and generous with other children. Laura doesn’t know what to make of it. She looks up to her mother, who has woken and opened her eyes. The both of them look at each other in askance.
“What do you mean, child?” prods Mrs Clarke, her voice low and patient.
“Well” starts Mary, now adding hair to the figure in her picture. “If he was a girl, then Charles would have his own girl. And then where would that leave me?”
Laura fights back tears. Throughout her pregnancy she had never once questioned Charles’ fidelity to her daughter; never had cause to wonder if he would love her all the same once the baby was here. And indeed, since Henry’s birth Charles has gone out of his way to make sure Mary was included, and to give her one-on-one attention. And she had told Mary that she would be loved – told her that she would be a big sister, and that they were proud of her for taking on more responsibility.
But she never considered that Mary might still need reassurance. It breaks her heart to see her girl so unsure of herself; the child ordinarily so confident reduced to these veiled enquiries.
“Mary, come here” Laura coaxes, opening her arms. Immediately the girl jumps up and approaches her mother’s chair. Laura is still tender, and Mary is getting too big to sit on her lap in the arm chair. But she stands right next to the side of it and Laura wraps her arms around her there.
“Now you listen to me, young lady” she says, loving but serious. “Charles loves you. With all his heart. And it wouldn’t matter one whit if Henry had been a girl, he would love you still”
“Just not as much” says Mary. She sounds so sure; so factual.
“No, Mary. Exactly the same. Just like I love you both exactly the same, and Grandma loves you the same. Charles adores you; you’re his big girl. Nobody will ever take that way, ever”
Mary looks sceptical and a bit shy now. She wants to believe her mother, but she was so certain – had got the idea so firmly entrenched in her mind – that it’s hard to turn that opinion around.
“But I’m not his” she whispers. Laura gasps and pulls her daughter into a firm embrace, rocking her a little from side to side. She takes a moment to hold back tears, her heart breaking for her daughter who is so wise, and yet still so young.
“You are, Mary” she says, her voice much steadier than her overwhelmed emotions. “You are every bit Charles’ child as Henry. He doesn’t care that you had a different father before. That doesn’t matter to him. All that matters is we are a family, and you are a huge part of that family”
Laura takes a moment to think about Will Brown. She doesn’t often; he has been gone a long time and despite his death she has few regrets from her first marriage. They had loved each other kindly and then she had lost him. Through that loss she had gained her wonderful daughter, her own business, and the opportunity to meet the man of her dreams. Will had left his mark on the world, in his way. But Mary has no memory of her biological father, despite the few stories she knows of him. She doesn’t have to live with fuzzy pictures of his smile, or what his voice sounded like. In some ways it was easier with her being so young.
But Laura wonders if his death had left a hole in her heart all along – if sweet, vivacious Mary was left wondering about a side of herself she could never know. Will hadn’t left very many things behind; no boxes of sketches like Charles, or embroidered quilts like Mrs Clarke. He had left the legacy of the paper, and a child. But no mementos. Perhaps Laura owed her daughter more stories to make up for that.
Ignoring the tenderness in her stomach and Mary’s growing size, Laura pulls her daughter over her lap and cuddles her close. She looks at her mother over Mary’s head, and Mrs Clarke has a troubled look on her face, equally concerned by Mary’s confessions.
The kitchen door opens suddenly and the two women look over to the noise, watching Charles walk inside after a long day at the newspaper. He immediately notes the scene in front of him, and his brow furrows in askance. Laura beckons him over with a look, and then whispers in her daughter’s ear.
“Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
Mary looks up just as Charles is approaching Laura’s chair, and he crouches down next to them. Any other time he would go straight for the bassinette on the floor, but he recognises that this moment seems important, and the baby is sleeping anyway, and so he focusses all his attention on his girls.
“Hey pumpkin” he says softly, running a hand over Mary’s hair where her head rests on her mother’s shoulder. “What’s-a matter?”
“It’s nothing” she says softly. She is bashful; not quite ready to confront him with her feelings, and understandably so; she doesn’t want to wound his feelings by accusing him of not loving her as much as Henry. Even being a young child, she understands that it’s a hurtful thing to say.
Without hesitation Charles grasps Mary under her arms and hoists her out of Laura’s chair and into his arms. She wraps her legs around his waist and burrows her face into his shoulder, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. He clutches her close with one hand and uses the other to run comforting circles over her back. “Come on, chickadee, talk to me” he says softly.
“I was just being silly” she says, shaking her head.
“About what?” he implores.
Her arms tighten around his neck just fractionally, and she doesn’t answer. Charles looks at Laura, questioning, and she sighs. Mary won’t elaborate, but she is also upset. Best to tell him so they can mend it, rather than let the child’s doubt fester into outright resentment.
“Mary is worried, now that Henry is born”
“Because Henry is your son” finishes Laura quietly, her expression adding nuance to the statement, allowing him to understand what she is saying almost immediately. He hugs Mary tightly in response. Laura still looks teary, but relieved now that Charles is home.
“Mary” he sighs. He moves over to the couch to sit down, Mary still wrapped around him and refusing to let go. He thinks she doesn’t want him to see her face, but that just won’t do for this conversation. “Listen kid. I hate to break it to you, but you’re stuck with me”
She sniffles, close to tears herself, but pulls back to look at him. Well, almost look at him. She keeps her gaze directed at his chest. “I thought you were stuck with me” she replies, her voice very small.
“Mary” he says, and he puts a finger under her chin and forces her to look him in the eye. She does, reluctantly. “I am not stuck with you. I am privileged to know you. And I am honoured to be part of your family. And nobody – not even little Henry – is ever going to change that. Okay?”
“It’s just because Henry is your actual kid and I’m not” she says on a huff, her shoulders going up and then down, finally fed up with her emotions and eager to get them out. Charles runs a hand over her hair again, analysing her from where he sits. This conversation is so far out of his depth, but he has to find a way to make her understand.
“What would it take to convince you?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I don’t even know why I feel like this, because you’re a really great person” she says, and Charles has to smile at how frank she is. Now that her shyness is gone she’s back to her old verbose self, honest and frank in a way that he can admire for a kid her age. “I guess because, well, you and Mama, and Henry, you make up your own family, and have your own name, and I don’t know what that leaves me with”
She looks positively sulky now, her hands fiddling with the button on Charles’ waistcoat, his own hands resting on her shoulders still. They have been good pals, he and Mary, since the beginning. She comes to him with things she feels she can’t go to her mother with. And though he tries to leave the serious parenting to Laura out of respect and admiration of her position, he is finding it easier to take on the role of Mary’s father; not just friend, but teacher, and occasionally dispenser of discipline when it’s warranted.
Suddenly Laura gets an idea, and mentally smacks herself that she didn’t think of it sooner. She looks at Charles and wonders if he picked up on the same issue she did; if he will comment on it. He looks right at her – a loaded look between them – and they can’t be sure they’re on the same page, but she trusts him to make whatever decision he is currently contemplating.
“Mary” he says, pulling the child back a little to make her listen. She looks him in the eye. “Do you want to make it formal?”
Laura smiles. Oh yes, he was on the same page alright. Part of her is sad – they have been Brown for a long time. But they are a new family now, and she had taken Charles’ name as is the custom. It only seems right to pass that on to Mary as well.
“Formal?” asks Mary.
“Mary… would you like it if… well, if I adopted you. Officially?”
“Adopted me?” she repeats, her eyes going wide as saucers, her mouth falling open.
“You are a part of this family, but you’re right – your name doesn’t match up” he says, eyes flicking to Laura. They had never questioned her decision to take his name; they just hadn’t considered that it would leave Mary all by herself. “I want you to always know that you are every bit as important to this house as any of us. Because you are”
Mary can only look at him, her mouth still open, her eyes still wide. He can’t tell if she’s shocked, appalled, or excited. “So I would get your name? Really?”
“If you’d like. Because I would love that, but Mary, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I understand either way. But if this is important to you, I would be honoured to adopt you, and make you formally my daughter”
Before he can even finish speaking she launches forward in his lap and wraps her arms around his neck, hugging him tight. He oofs and wraps his own arms around her back, holding her to him. Laura is smiling, and when he chances a look at Mrs Clarke she is smiling too, if only faintly.
Of course, Mary’s school records are the only thing that will really have to change for the moment. All it will take is a meeting in a lawyer’s office – formal proceedings are not even invented yet, let alone widely practiced. And anyway, it’s common enough that the children take the new marriage name, Mary will hardly be unique in that respect. But it seems important to her that they make this gesture, and so Charles will more than happily stand in front of a judge and declare himself her father, if that puts her mind at ease.
“You’re my daughter Mary” he whispers into her hair. “And I love you like you were my own flesh and blood”
“I love you too” she whispers. Over in her chair Laura wipes her eyes and tries not to break their moment by sniffling too loud.
Mary pulls back again and looks at Charles. “Does this mean I call you Dad too?”
Charles takes her cheeks in his hands, smiling so wide he might hurt his cheeks, overwhelmed with emotion. “You can call me whatever you like”
Mary hugs him again, and Charles wraps her up and buries his face in her shoulder, fighting off his own tears. If he had known that today would end like this he would have prepared himself better, but for now he has to comfort himself with the fact that Mary actually loves him this much. She can’t know that for the longest time, and even sometimes still, he feels like the outsider; the clueless one who was a convenient add-on to this holistic family. Out of time and out of his depth. But to be thought of as integral and to be wanted so much – to have his name become the family name – it is just a bit much for him to hold back. He takes a deep breath and holds in tears.
From his place in the bassinette on the floor Henry starts fussing, moving his head and pursing his lips, obviously rooting around for his next feed. Laura looks away just long enough to collect him, and then places the knuckle of her little finger in his mouth to settle him for a moment while she enjoys the sight in front of her. They don’t have a nursemaid, and never intended it, so Laura will go upstairs in a moment to feed. When her finger seems unsatisfactory, the baby squawks out, his noises still muffled and nasal in that newborn way.
Mary turns around and shoots her brother a look over her shoulder. “Henry, shush, Dad and I are having a moment”
It doesn’t work on Henry, naturally, but it does make everyone else laugh loudly, which startles him enough to distract him from crying for just a moment. Even Mrs Clarke in the other corner chuckles. Laura leans over and kisses the top of Mary’s head, and then kisses Charles on the lips – chaste for the moment, but she will make it up to him later with a proper kiss – and then she walks upstairs with the babe in arms before he starts fussing again.
“I’m going to heat that stew again for supper” says Mrs Clarke, hoisting herself from her chair. She nods at Charles as she walks by, an apparent approval of the way he handled Mary’s inquiry, and perhaps also an endorsement of his suggestion to adopt her. He can’t be sure; he has never asked her what she thinks of him in relation to Will Brown. He’s not sure he ever will.
Charles pats Mary on the back to encourage her to sit up and hop off his lap. She does, and he slides from the seat onto the floor with her, where her drawing materials are still spread out.
“Now, let’s see what you’ve been working on here…”
And just like that the house is harmonious once more, with happy anticipation on the horizon. Crisis averted once again.