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The Persistence of Memory

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I bought a teapot a few months after the war ended. It was in the window of a charity shop, half off because the handle was chipped, and so I told myself that it wasn’t an extravagance.

And in any case I had to buy it, because it reminded me of Julie. It looked just the same as the teapot we used when we broke into her friends’ flat, the china white and blue and trimmed with gold.

I don’t recall why we decided to go to the flat in the first place. We didn’t mean to break into the flat: or I didn’t, anyway; Julie said she had the key, because her friend was in the countryside for the duration.

But the key didn’t work, so Julie went to work on the lock with a bobby pin while I glanced guiltily up and down the hall. “We look quite the pair of spies.”

“Nonsense,” Julie said. She grinned up at me. Her unpinned bun unwound, loose strands of hair drifting against her cheek. “Why would spies waste their time breaking into a perfectly ordinary flat?”

“All the best spies seem perfectly ordinary,” I told her, shifting from foot to foot, and looking up the hall again.

“Then no one will take you for a spy,” Julie reassured me. “You look far too guilty.”

Julie - ”

Julie lifted a hand in that way she had that made everyone do what she told. Another twitch of the bobby pin, and the lock clicked. “Open sesame,” she said.

Stale air drifted out as she opened the door. Julie didn’t get up right away, so I entered first, almost on tiptoe. The open door let in a rectangle of light, but beyond that, the room was gray and shadowed, the blackout curtains completely blocking the sun. Old sheets shrouded the furniture. Puffs of dust rose from the carpet as I took a few uneasy steps inside, then stopped, skin prickling.

When Julie spoke, it made me jump. “I feel as if we’ll awaken the flat,” she said, her voice unusually soft, and I knew she felt the uneasiness too.

“We could have tea in the park,” I suggested.

Julie strode across the room and pulled open the blackout curtains, one after another. The dusty glass filtered the sunshine down to a glimmer, and she forced the windows open, letting in the sunlight and the breeze and the faint scent of smoke, as if a building nearby still smoldered from the bombing.

“There,” said Julie; and she swept the dingy gray sheets off a little table and two chairs by the windows. Dust swirled through the air, where it lost its dingy grayness and looked golden in the sun, and Julie swirled too, tossing the sheets in a heap in a corner. “I’ll get the teapot!”

I closed the door behind me. All the uneasiness had gone: Julie had that effect on me, of making me braver than I was. As if nothing bad could happen while we were together.

I perched in one of the chairs, which was so small and white and delicate I was afraid I would break it. And the tea set, also, was delicate: Julie brought it out balanced on a tray, a teapot and two cups and the sugar bowl, white and blue and glittering with gilding.

Julie wiped the china clean on her handkerchief and emptied her canteen into the teapot. She set out a plate, triangles of bread looking absurdly plain against the gilt. Then, grave as anything, she poured us both cups of cold tea. “Do you take cream, Miss Brodatt? Or sugar?” she asked, as if she had either to offer.

“Sugar, Lady Julia,” I said, and a laugh bubbled out of me: at the ridiculousness of her title, and the fact that she had a title, and that I somehow had become best friends with a Lady anything.

But Julie remained very grave. She took up the tarnished sugar tongs and lifted an imaginary sugar cube from the sugar bowl.

There was something terribly comic about sitting in that dusty room, gravely taking triangles of bread and sipping harsh cold tea out of those sleek, fashionable cups. Julie relaxed her grip on the sugar tongs, releasing the imaginary sugar cube into my cup - “Plink,” I said, and our eyes met and we both began to laugh.

“Did you ever read A Little Princess?” Julie asked. “I loved to pretend to be Sara Crewe - to act out the scene where her dear friend Ermengarde brings a hamper to her room, and they pretend that they’re having a royal feast. But my brothers would never play it with me, of course - excepting Jamie.” She gave a theatrical sigh, then studied me intently. “You look more like Sara Crewe than I do,” she said. “It’s a pity we don’t have a wreath of rosebuds for your hair, like she wears for dancing.”

“Yes we do,” I said, and mimed placing a circlet on my head.

Julie closed her eyes tightly for a minute, covering them with her hands, and then opened them again and looked. A smile bloomed across her face. “Yes, you do,” she said, with such satisfaction that I almost felt the fairy weight of a circlet on my head. “And I am your dear friend Ermengarde, daft but kindhearted.”

“You!” I cried, laughing.

“What? You think I’m not kindhearted?” Julie said, pretending to be indignant.

“That must be it,” I said. “Because you’re clearly very daft.”

“I will make a marvellous Ermengarde,” she told me, swiftly plaiting her hair in two pigtails, like a little girl’s. Then she hunched her shoulders in and lowered her head, and looked up at me appealingly, and she did look like a different person: a shy little girl gazing admiringly at her friend, who wore rosebuds in her hair.

She made me laugh, but even so - oh, she was good. I knew Julie wasn’t like that at all, that it was all an act, but still her look was so helpless, almost puppy-like in adoration, sweet but somehow sad in its worshipful intensity - I wanted to take care of her. How could she do that with just a look? I laughed, but it hurt too. “Julie,” I said.

She shook her head, her unbound plaits starting to come undone, and for a moment she was Julie again, frowning at me for interrupting the illusion. Then she tilted the teacup so it hid half of her face - and when she lowered it, again she was Ermengarde. “Sara, you know I get confused when we pretend my name isn’t Ermengarde,” she objected. “I’m not like you, I can only pretend so many things at once.”

What was Sara supposed to say to that? I hadn’t read the book then. Did Sara know Ermengarde adored her? Did she care? I felt almost indignant at Sara, at the thought that she might not. “You underestimate yourself,” I said. “I’m sure you pretend better than you think. Go ahead, give it a try.”

She looked at me round-eyed. “All right,” she said doubtfully, and picked up a triangle of bread. “This looks like bread. But really, it’s...it’s…” Julie paused, face scrunched up as if thinking hard. She stared at the bread, holding it so tight that she squashed the middle, her eyes intent and her face flushing as if she were holding her breath; and I found I was holding my breath too, leaning in as if I could will her to imagine - as if Julie needed any help imagining!

For a moment she flickered out of character, grinning at me, enjoying the drama of the moment. And then her face scrunched up into thoughtful Ermengarde again. “It’s…it’s pound cake!” she said triumphantly, and took a big bite of the bread. Then she frowned. “It still tastes like bread. You do it, Sara; it’s always better when you do it. Is it pound cake?”

“If we’re imagining,” I said, “then it can be anything we want it to be. It could be pound cake, or a lemon tart, or - or a plum pudding, if we want.”

“But it’s summer,” she objected. “Can we have plum pudding in summer?”

“We can pretend it’s Christmas.”

Julie-Ermengarde looked most impressed. “Could you really, Sara?” she said worshipfully. “That might be too much imagining for me.”

“Oh, stop it!” I cried. “Yes, you’re a splendid Ermengarde, but be Julie for me again.”

“Am I really splendid?” Julie asked, still wide-eyed and Ermengardian.

Yes. But you’re using up all the imagination we need to make this bread into treacle tart.”

She laughed - and then, without even undoing her plaits, she was Julie again, light, bright, laughing, and confident in being adored. “Not treacle tart,” she said. “Sachertorte. Let’s pretend the war away - let’s pretend we’re in Vienna!”

That’s what I remember, the dusty flat and the sunshine and A Little Princess. I don’t recall the rest of the day. I had even forgotten the teapot, until I saw it in the window of the charity shop and it reminded me of everything. It made me wonder what else I had forgotten, and what else I might forget if I didn’t take care to remember; and so I had to buy it, although really it was extravagant.

Being extravagant reminds me of Julie, too.

Once I didn’t want to be reminded of Julie at all. During the war, everything reminded me of her. I couldn’t get away from it, and it hurt. But the war is over now. It hurts less to remember now; it hurts more to worry that I’ll forget.

***

I didn’t take the teapot when I visited Castle Craig. They have more than enough china there already, after all. But one day, when Jamie and I faced a particularly grim breakfast of dry toast, I said to him, “Julie said - ” I had to stop and look down at my plate before I could go on. “Julie said you used to play A Little Princess.”

He looked up at me, startled. “Yes,” he said, and seemed about to say more; but he didn't.

“She told me about it,” I said. “Julie did, I mean.” As if I could have meant anyone else; but I had to say her name again. It hurt less the second time, but on top of the first hurt, that was still too much. My throat swelled with tears, and I wished I hadn’t brought it up. “I expect we’re a bit too old for it now,” I mumbled. All children grow up, except one.

Unless they die too soon.

Not that Julie had been a child when she died. But there was a little of that in her still: Julie was a little bit of everything.

There are some things you can’t pretend away.

“I don’t think I shall ever be old enough to appreciate dry toast without at least pretending it has butter,” said Jamie. He put one of his narrow hands on mine, and the warmth of his fingers seemed to unlock my grip. My hands relaxed, and a few tears trickled out of my eyes.

Jamie kept his hand on mine. “We ought to have butter,” he told me. “Only Ross and Jock buttered their shoe soles to see if they could skate down the hallways.” Another hesitation. But this time he continued. “Julie and I tried that once,” he said, and suddenly smiled. “She knocked over a suit of armor.”

“She never could navigate.” And I began to laugh, though my voice was still husky with tears. “Oh, Julie - ”

And we forgot about our burnt toast, and talked about Julie till our tea got cold; till her name was just a catch in my chest, and saying it hardly hurt at all.