Friend Like You
The spirit of a new year always makes him pensive. Every year he takes the opportunity to reflect, but never more so than this year when he has so much to be thankful for, and has come so far in his short time in Somerville. At times it has felt turbulent, like perhaps it was not the simple life he was craving, and despite their immense love, he and Laura always work hard to stay a team. But tonight is a chance to reflect on the fruit of that labour, and to revel in the great reward their hard-fought battles have brought. Every internal war, or uphill battle, and every unexpected blessing has been leading to this evening, where he can stop and say with conviction that it was beyond worth it.
The whole town has turned out for the annual picnic in the park, and no doubt later there will be fireworks and sparklers set alight, and well into the night the younger revellers will cause mischief. This time last year, or thereabouts, he and Laura conceived Henry, and by the look she gives him over the bassinet as they all sit on a picnic rug, she is more than aware of the fact.
But it is not just his immediately family that has given him cause to be thankful. Across the park he sees Walt make his way around with all four of his young children in tow, his wife happy on his arm. Walt, who keeps the farm running smoothly for Laura because Charles can’t; the man who has taken on even more work since Laura had the baby, and has always been a stalwart friend to his wife. Though Charles does not doubt Laura's abilities, he wonders if she would have succumbed to her mother's nagging if not for the support Walt offered in keeping their small farm running. Laura herself has admitted to him that she probably would have surrendered. Charles wonders if Walt knows that.
Mary walks over to them and unceremoniously flops into his lap, leaning against him as she peers into the bassinet. Henry peers back at her, his little lips pursed and his blue eyes wide. This is more lights and noise than he is used to, his little nose red in the chill night air, and though he looks like he might start crying at any moment, he is also enthralled.
"When will Henry start talking?" asks Mary.
Laura smiles at her and at the picture of the two of them cuddling together, much as Charles' leg is starting to get the beginnings of pins and needles.
"Not for a while yet" says Charles.
"You were over a year old, my girl" says Laura. Mary looks outraged, and then quickly disappointed.
"Henry has just gone three months old, it's going to be ages" she pouts.
"Enjoy it while it lasts, kiddo" says Charles. "Just think, what will you do when there's another person to argue with?"
Laura grins, but holds her tongue as her daughter gives Charles a look that can only be called haughty. "I don't argue. I debate"
"Oh, I do apologise"
Mrs Clarke looks completely displeased by their teasing - she sees it all as unruly back-chat, and wouldn't have allowed it in her household - but she says nothing, just clears her throat pointedly, which they all equally ignore. For the sake of her arthritis they have set up their picnic next to a park bench under a tree, where the ground is a little more sheltered from recent snowfall. Mrs Clarke has taken the bench as her own, enjoying a rare brandy from where she sits overlooking so many of the other families. It puts them all out of her direct line of sight, but does give the feelings that Mrs Clarke is peering down at them with disapproval. There is a fine balance between preserving Mary's spirit and ensuring her manners don't go askew; Laura and Charles navigate it in a way her mother's generation would not have dreamed.
When Mary gets up again to go play with the other children in the dark - a treat for kids who don't yet have street lights to measure time by - Laura takes the opportunity to scoot close to him and rest against his side. She takes Henry from his bassinet to feed him, unconcerned by her lack of modesty as most women are in this time when it comes to feeding their children. After all, how else is their son supposed to feed except at the breast? Even so, Charles shifts so as to keep her out of anyone's direct line of sight, and if she notices she doesn't comment.
When Henry is well-fed, and the revelries are well under way, Charles coaxes Laura to her feet, politely excuses them from Mrs Clarke's company for just a little while, and then pulls his laughing wife over to the wooden dance floor set up in the middle of the park.
"You are positively wicked" says Laura. She's still laughing when she says it though, the small sip of wine she had earlier going straight to her head. Charles laughs too; he's had a little more wine than her, and is not the least bit sorry for it. Around them the crowd is rowdy and filled with chatter, and divisions that exist outside of this eve disappear. Men who normally cuss at each other over the top of the business table have started a friendly line of dancing; women whose mothers hated one another are gossiping together as they watch. And all around are couples, young and old, who are enquiring after their neighbour's health, and their children, and whether their fence got mended or their crop was successful this year. Even the younger adults - single, or not quite finished school - are striking up conversations that, were they anywhere else, might seem out of place or improper.
Charles notices Walt's oldest boy trying to flirt - badly - with a girl from his class, the two of them surely too young to even know what a sweetheart is, and the sight makes him smile widely. The wheel turns, but nothing truly changes.
Charles decides then that New Years Eve is his favourite holiday. Made even more so by the promise that exists in the future and the significance of such promise to his life in Somerville. He's always been a sucker for new beginnings.
"You've turned contemplative" says Laura, stroking his temple with her finger, eyeing him with an intense stare that has become characteristic of her.
"No. Just grateful" he says, coming back to himself and bobbing them along to the music with more gusto. Laura smiles at him in an all-knowing way, and rather than be unnerved by her, he allows the familiarity of it to wash over him because this is home.
"One of these days your place here in this life will cease to take you by surprise, Charles Lattimer" she says, a funny little grin on her face.
"I sincerely hope not" he banters back, and means it deeply.
That makes her smile again, and when Charles pushes her out into a spin in time to the lively music, she shrieks with joy and holds his hand tight on her return.
She is flushed and happy when they come back to their places on the picnic blanket, and Mrs Clarke looks soft - not a word Charles would ever ascribe her - as she watches their return, a gentle smile on her face that tells him she still, despite her protestations, approves of him.
"Not a peep from your son. Seems he can sleep through a hurricane" she says. Laura leans down to peer into the bassinet, but her mother is right - Henry hasn't stirred even once since they left. His brow furrows a little in sleep when a gentleman sneezes loudly behind them, but otherwise he lays undisturbed. Laura takes a spare crocheted blanket and lays it over the top of the bassinette to keep the chill out while Henry sleeps.
"I wonder what horrors he is saving up for me for later, if he is so content in this noise" says Laura with mirth. Her mother chuckles in response, shifting her shawl higher on her shoulder. Fresh snow has held back this night, but the powder on the ground promises it isn't far away.
Charles places a hand on Laura's waist. "I'm going to go get another drink, would you like anything?"
Laura looks back at the outside bar set up across the way, and then at the picnic basket that holds half a bottle of red wine and the leftovers of their supper.
"I think I'll make do here"
"I'm fine thank you"
Charles notes that she still has the brandy bottle and a small glass up on the bench next to her. He nods and walks away, choosing a well-worn path away from any snow drifts. The park had been shovelled down, but it's not all gone, and soon enough the fresh fall will force the party back indoors. For now, though, the warmth of the fires and people littered around the park make it seem rather cosy for the middle of winter.
Charles leans against the bar casually, waiting his turn. Some things seem timeless, and the wait at a bar to be served is certainly one of them, especially as the barman has been celebrating himself and isn't quite up to his usual speed. Charles turns when he hears someone clear their throat behind him, and there stands Fred, mirroring his waiting lean.
"Hey Fred, how's your night going"
"Very well, very well, thanks for asking Charlie"
Fred is one of the few people in town to call Charles by his old nickname, and it's a nice touch - it shows they have accepted him here, and from Fred especially that is quite a compliment.
"You've had a dance?" asks Charles.
"Oh yes, I've had a good old dance with Doreen - you know Doreen, from the hotel, runs the scullery over there?"
"I know Doreen"
"Fine woman that" says Fred, nodding to himself, the amount he's had to drink becoming abundantly clear.
Charles laughs. Fred married young and lost his wife not long after. Doreen, from what he understands, had much the same fate with her husband. The two of them have been carrying out the longest and most indiscreet love affair ever since; the worst kept secret in town must surely be that Fred lives in the rear bachelor's cottage of the hotel not for monetary convenience, but for a different convenience altogether.
"As is Laura, I might say, mighty fine women, both of them" says Fred, continuing his thought.
"That she is" says Charles, holding up two fingers to the approaching barman and gesturing between himself and Fred. The man nods his understanding.
"You take good care of her, you know" continues Fred, undeterred. "I don't know if I've ever told you that, but you do"
"Well, thank you Fred. I have to say, I'm thankful Laura had you in her life before me-"
"Me and Laura never-"
Charles has to stop himself from laughing when Fred tries to correct him; the man nearly loses his balance trying to face him quickly, determined to get his truth out. Charles takes his elbow and steadies him, and then bites his lip as Fred corrects himself.
"No, no, I didn't mean like that" says Charles, patting Fred on the back.
"Well… just so long as you know I never took advantage"
"I do know that" he says, taking their drinks and paying the barman. "I just meant, not every man would have supported her in that position, and I'm thankful you did. Otherwise, Laura and I might never have met"
Fred sizes him up - a comical feat for a man whose whisky is obviously just now hitting his head - and then nods. "I knew Will since he was a boy" he says. "I never knew a person more capable than Laura to take over from him after he passed"
Charles feels a swell of gratitude then. It seems so often that he and Laura are considered outsiders for their way of life; it's always such a relief to see the small but loyal cohort Laura cultivated around her. He doesn't like to get too possessive - he knows Laura survived just fine before he came along - but he's here now and sees the burden she carries sometimes. He is grateful to the people who helped ease it before he was there to share it.
"You do well too, you know" continues Fred, taking a sip of his beer. Some of the foam rests on his lower lip, and he licks it away. Charles bites his lip to stop himself laughing. "I never saw a man take up the printing life so quick. I know you must have worked at papers in the city, but… you've got a knack for it"
"I had a good teacher" says Charles.
Fred snorts, and shakes his head. "Always with a quick reply. It's any wonder you didn't end up a lawyer"
"Nah, my old man was one" says Charles, taking a sip of his beer.
"Yeah. Never seemed the life for me. I was too…"
Charles gives Fred a funny look as the man nods to himself. 'Soft' seems like one of those words that could be a metaphor, but he's not sure, nor does he think Fred would be malicious in what he's saying. Fred doesn't notice the look, but he's drunk enough to elaborate on his own thought anyway.
"Not that it's a bad thing, Charlie, a great number of men could afford to be a bit softer. Not like that, but… oh, you know, love your woman, take care of her, even if that means being an artist"
Charles grins and shakes his head a little. He knows what Fred is saying - or at least what he's trying to say - and doesn't take offense at the way it comes out, but the whole exchange is quite amusing. Fred refers to Charles' extra work with the city papers as 'pretty pictures', but always says it in a way that betrays his interest. Charles has seen Fred's chicken sketches, whenever a diagram or drawing is needed at the printing press; he thinks maybe Fred is just a little bit jealous of his artistic skills, if that's not too presumptuous of him. Not that the old curmudgeon would ever admit it, of course.
"So what you're saying, Fred" starts Charles, watching Fred turn to him again, another froth moustache on his top lip. "Is that you're glad I can provide for Laura by drawing my pretty pictures?"
Fred nods vigorously, nearly spilling his drink. "Exactly, yes. You do good, sending off those things. And I'm glad it keeps you away from the press sometimes, because then I still have a job"
Charles smiles. "Fred, believe me, you will always have a job with Laura. And I'm not saying that because I have any say in the matter - if you recall, we both work for her"
Fred laughs, nodding, and pats Charles on the back a little roughly. Charles laughs too, because he does find it a little bit funny that - regardless of time or place - he seems to have a thing for hard working women. And it never bothers him that he works for Laura, or that people seem to have a problem with it; in fact, it makes him proud.
"That we do Charlie boy" says Fred with a happy sigh. "She's got us both under her thumb"
"Yes she does" says Charles as he grins. He doesn't say he enjoys it that way. 'Soft' man or not, it's not the done thing to admit out loud that you like your wife wearing the pants, even if your whole way of life tells people as such. Shifting his glass to his left hand, Charles holds out his right, and when Fred takes it, he looks him in the eye and shakes his hand firmly. It is less than Fred deserves, but he seems to understand what Charles is saying.
"Thank you, my friend"
"Oh Charlie" says Fred, waving him off. "Your drink is making you morbid"
Charles laughs. Maybe it is, he thinks, and takes a sip of his beer for good measure.
"I'm off to find Doreen and take her for a spin" says Fred, downing his beer in one big guzzle and putting the empty on the bar. He throws a wave over his shoulder as he walks away. Charles shakes his head at Fred's wobbly gait.
He rests his elbow against the bar, leaning back and people watching as he finishes his drink. The joviality of the night is contagious; despite the music and the dancing and the general ruckus, there is a calm to it all that makes his soul feel at peace. There is no rush - nobody is worried about making it to the hottest club in town, or where they will stay tonight, or if Suzanne from accounting is going to get weird at this company party and dance on the table again, which he recalls was the biggest concern three New Years Eve's ago. Everyone is just in the moment, enjoying present company, unconcerned about the weeks to come. There is only now, and tonight, and what the evening means - another year weathered, the little town thriving.
He finishes the last gulp of beer, puts his glass on the bar behind him, and pushes away to go join his family. He approaches their picnic area slowly, ambling. Laura is standing and speaking with a woman about her age, and Mrs Clarke is involved in the conversation too. He recognises her as an old friend.
A wave of calm washes over him and he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that when he kisses Laura under the midnight fireworks, surrounded by his beautiful children (and his grouchy mother-in-law), he will be ushering in a new year free of his past. He finally feels, possibly for the first time, that his feet are firm on the ground and any lingering doubts or fears melt away as his roots take hold in the soil and weave through the earth, the same way his life has become entangled in this time. He is here, and he is staying. Bring on the next year, he think, and walks over to the women with a spring in his step.