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Sustained and Survived

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Cassandra moves to London just before the war. She worries about the castle, empty but for the odd weekend visit from Topaz and her father and Thomas, but it’s Simon, of all people, who writes to tell her that she can’t take care of a castle forever. On the train up to London, she rereads his letter, tracing the neat line of his penmanship with her fingers.

Topaz invites her to move into their flat, but it’s too crowded there with Topaz and her father and all their many visitors, respected writers and artists whom Cassandra thinks might have been more helpful to have around during the lean years. (“Lean?” Rose writes from America. Cassandra can almost hear her lips pursing. “I’d sooner call them emaciated.”)

And then, of course, the war begins and they all retreat to the countryside—to the castle, in fact, finally good for something as a war refuge for middling London intellectuals. Topaz is in her element and writes letters full of mixed metaphors about battening down the troops. But Cassandra stays in London, fights to keep her dark, poky room in Mrs. Albertson’s rooming house and her job at the women’s magazine. It feels next to useless to write a column about housekeeping tips, but then rationing comes in and Cassandra finds she’s rather good at making up ways to stretch butter and sugar. Rose sends snapshots of her twin girls, growing older along with the war, and Cassandra pins them up in her room.

The other girls at the magazine insist on a weekly reading of Cassandra’s letters from home. Maud, the copy editor, says that if she’s going to be bombed, she might as well be laughing when it happens. Topaz tells stories about dyeing everything in the house to make blackout curtains. The Vicar sends anecdotes about his parishioners and his victory garden and always closes by reminding Cassandra to enjoy a little sherry after supper. Thomas complains about his army rations. Rose confides that she and Neil have terrific rows about whether or not America should join the war. (A postscript, from Neil: “Listen, Cassandra, Rose has it all wrong. I’m not in favour of leaving you alone out there. I just think we need to be careful.”)

Simon sends a few short, unsatisfying notes that arrive at random, unprompted by any letters Cassandra may or may not write to him. (When Rose asks whether she’s in correspondence with him, Cassandra writes, “I find that writing for a living makes writing letters seem oddly taxing.”) She doesn’t read Simon’s notes to anyone, of course—though she describes them to Maud, who recommends burning them for warmth.

Everyone gets through the war unscathed, though half of Scoatney Hall burns down after a bombing, and Cassandra spends the worst three hours of her life waiting out an air raid in a Tube station, and Rose and Neil have another awful row about the atomic bomb. Thomas returns from North Africa rather cheerful and embarks upon a PhD. Stephen, as it turns out, distinguishes himself somehow in France and moves to Los Angeles to make a go of it as an actor. Rose reports that he wears the distinguished British war hero look quite well, or so say her American friends. (“He’ll always be funny old Stephen to me,” she writes. “Remember when he was in love with you?”) And Cassandra has a story published, something she wrote about the three hours in the Tube station. Her father does not telephone to congratulate her, but Topaz does, from the Vicar’s phone. He can be heard calling “Brava! Brava!” in the background.

The next time Cassandra’s down at the castle, she sits in the gatehouse while Mortmain works on his third novel. After a long while, without looking up, he says, “Well done.”

Cassandra doesn’t think about Simon’s brief note of congratulations, or how during that long night in the Tube station, trying to think of the best moments, she could only remember Clair de lune and the shadow of a beard on the wall and a child with grey hands. During the war, she sometimes thought she saw him ducking around a street corner, here or there, but now that everything is over and beginning again, she finds that her memories of him are too faded to replay.

The story somehow merits Cassandra an invitation to a reception for wartime correspondents, and it’s there that she meets Arthur, an editor at the Times. He’s so alive, she thinks—this is the only way she can find to describe him in her weekly letter to Rose. He gives off energy somehow, gesturing, bantering, joking. He doesn’t take anything very seriously, least of all his service in the RAF, about which he never answers questions. When she sees him across a crowded room or bounding down the street toward her, Cassandra feels a little lighter and a little taller. Topaz nods sagely and says that their souls have recognized each other and their bodies are beginning to respond. (“For me it felt like nothing so much as relief,” Rose writes. “As though I knew who I was after all.”)

Months pass with no word from Simon, but reconstruction begins on Scoatney Hall all the same. Topaz reports that he’s engaged again, to a very young American girl he met at one of his mother’s parties. Cassandra imagines a small tug on the thread connecting them as it snaps for good. She sometimes feels Arthur studying her, at parties with their friends, as they wait for the Tube or read their separate books on a Sunday afternoon. If Maud is there, she rolls her eyes, but Cassandra finds that it’s—reassuring, somehow, to be seen.

Rose and Neil promise to visit England the next summer with the girls, who will be just old enough to find the castle thrilling. (“Just like the two of us, remember that day? And Cassandra—Simon and Evelyn may join us at Scoatney. We’re all so happy now that the way it all began feels rather like it happened to another family,” writes Rose. “And perhaps it did,” Cassandra says aloud to no one, wishing for a moment that she had kept the dressmaker’s bust.) Topaz and Mortmain remain at the castle, ministering every weekend to a new house party of dejected artistic men (Topaz) and writing (Mortmain). Thomas says he’s much too busy for visits, but sometimes he spends the day in London with Cassandra. Arthur complains that all they do is recount terrible meals from their childhood.

After a while it feels silly to pretend that they don’t spend every night together, so Cassandra moves into Arthur’s little flat in Bloomsbury. On their first night there, she tells him about Simon, and he listens and doesn’t make any jokes. She starts a novel—something about castles and sisters and growing up, Arthur boasts to all their friends. He tells her a little bit about what happened to him during the war: a catalogue of his friends who died, a list of injuries sustained and survived. They don’t feel the need to get married just yet.

Rose is scandalized, and Topaz is impressed, but Cassandra is happy.