As Sweet as This
Author's Notes: Yes, I'm working on chapter 6 of "Never Spellbound", for those of you who may be wondering. But this piece suddenly welled up in me after a re-viewing of TMR, and I just had to write. This is a bit different from my usual line, and I'm really interested to know what people think, so even if you don't feel like reviewing on the site, if you could drop a line to orsongirl at hotmail dot com, I'd appreciate it very much. Thanks.
Disclaimer: n sdm(=f) ink iri kheperu imy pn. Translation: none of these characters are mine (literally, "I did not make the beings which are in this").
I have acquired a second shadow.
My small son, once so fiercely independent, now follows me about tenaciously. If I go to the museum to do research, he begs to come along. Whenever I announce my intention to go shopping, he's in the car before I've even managed to get my coat on. He is always courteous and meek, never speaking out of turn, never cheeky. He has suddenly metamorphosed into the perfect little gentleman I have been trying to raise for the past nine years. I can only pray it doesn't last. There are times when I miss his defiance, his insolence, even his bad language. However, of late I've heard Rick bellowing from his study often enough to know that there is still hope.
When I am writing in our library at home, as I am now, Alex sits opposite me at the table, quietly drawing pictures of the wonders he has seen. They are very good drawings, really, for a child of his age. He captures details even I'd forgotten. He's so very observant, you see; it's one of the reasons he was able to pick up the hieroglyphic language so quickly. In an earlier time, he would have been a fine expedition artist, but of course we use cameras for all that now.
He looks up from his latest sketch to inquire after my health, which is typical of the new Alex. "You all right, mum? You look a bit fagged. Maybe you should have a lie down. Or d'you want a biscuit?" He fishes this last from his pocket, stale, crumbling, with a bit of string stuck to one side. He makes a face, then shrugs and offers it anyhow. When I send him to dispose of it, he backs out of the room, his eyes never once leaving my face. He watches me every moment he can, as though I might evaporate the moment his gaze is directed elsewhere.
It's been hard, these past months. Pretending it never happened. Acting as though everything were normal. Trying to get on with our lives.
Rick enters the library, and comes over to see how far I've gotten in my work. I'm writing a book on the Scorpion King myth (myth--ha!) as my off-season project--which is, in all likelihood, what's got me thinking along these lines. I remember now that I promised that I'd stop for the day once I got fifteen pages of writing done. But I've only done eight.
"All finished," I fib, closing every book on the table with a flourish. He smiles, and leans in for a kiss, and I allow myself to be swept up into his strong arms. Like Alex, Rick has been far more attentive of late. In very different ways, of course.
Rick's been very bluff about the whole thing, as steady as a rock in front of friends and family alike. No one would possibly suspect that my husband--that genial giant who still puts his filthy boots up on the settee, still talks with his mouth full at the dinner table, and still teases me mercilessly at every opportunity, Mister Richard Shoot-First-And-Ask-Questions-Later O'Connell--cried the first time we made love after Ahm Shere. He told me he thought he'd failed me, failed to protect me the way he'd promised when we first were married. He would have had to be nothing short of superhuman to have saved Alex and gotten to me mere moments later, but Rick has never looked at things in terms of what is logically possible. And why should he, considering the things we've both been witness to? Resurrection, reincarnation--who can say what all this means?
One thing is certain: I was given a miracle. A second chance. And I am determined not to squander it.
Alex returns to find us still occupied, although we break apart as soon we become aware of his quiet presence. A year ago, he would have complained, told us to stop being sick-making and act like normal parents. Now, though, he simply remarks, "Hallo, Dad," and sits back down in front of his drawing.
"Hey, kiddo." Rick leans across the table and musses Alex's hair. The momentary juxtaposition of his hand and Alex's head is a startling reminder of how very small my son still is, really. "Whatcha drawin'?"
"Temples 'n stuff."
"Temples 'n stuff, huh?"
"Neat, let's see."
Alex slides his picture to us over the table. He has drawn the rock-cut monuments of Abu Simbel, with the same precision and grace he used in making his tiny sand sculptures. The proud features of Ramses the Great are a bit wobbly, perhaps, but it is an admirable effort nonetheless.
"It's smashing, Alex," I tell him. He nods, accepting the praise as his due.
"Amazing. Feels like I'm there," adds Rick.
Alex makes a face, embarrassed by his father's effusiveness. "Dad..."
"No, really. It's like looking at a photograph--swear to God!"
"Bloody hell," replies Alex succinctly. It's the first time he's said anything even remotely disrespectful in my presence since our return. He looks momentarily stricken, but seems determined to brazen it out. He does not apologize.
"I beg your pardon, young man?" I prompt.
"Well, Dad told me to swear." There is a distinctly mischievous cast to my son's face now.
"I did not!" Rick exclaims.
"Did, did, did!"
"He told you to do nothing of the sort," I pronounce, turning to leave the library. "And if I hear one more word on the subject, you can both go to bed without supper."
I elect not to notice when Alex sticks his thumbs in his nostrils and makes a disgusting face at his father--nor when my husband sticks his tongue out and blows a raspberry at our only child.
Jonathan comes for supper. As usual, he saves us the tedious trouble of having to invite him and simply turns up on our doorstep with a bottle of wine. Surprisingly, it is unopened. More surprisingly, he drinks less than half of it during the course of the evening. He even turns down a pre-dinner cocktail. Will wonders never cease?
Jonathan will not speak of what happened at Ahm Shere, referring to it only occasionally--and obliquely--as "that nasty oasis business". I think the whole thing badly shocked him. My poor brother... You may say what you will about Jonathan; he is not what most people would call a brave man, or even a very honest one most of the time. When it comes to the riches of the world, his eyes are bigger than his conscience. But he marched into danger, carrying my body in his arms, in search of the one book that could reunite me with my family. I will not forget that.
When our parents died, Jonathan promised he would protect me, and he has never once reneged on that promise. But nor has he sheltered or stifled me, or otherwise stopped me from living my life the way I wished. There will always be a place for him at our table, even when he forgets to call beforehand.
His behaviour towards me in particular has not changed, but I've noticed that these days he visits rather more than he used to, and drinks rather less than he used to. Which is all probably for the best.
I, however, am now on my second glass of wine of the evening; it's an indulgence I don't usually allow myself, and with good cause. I'm not exactly dancing on the table, mind you, but I've definitely got a rose in my cheek and a twinkle in my eye. And I laugh at all Jonathan's jokes, which is a sure sign. I'm what my brother and Rick like to call a cheap drunk. I first discovered this at Hamunaptra, when I foolishly partook of a bottle of whiskey and promptly attempted to leave my mark on a dashing young adventurer I'd only just met. A few weeks later, safely back in Cairo, Rick, ever the resourceful one, steered me in the direction of the local casbah to in order to encourage a repeat performance. He got more than he bargained for when I practically vaulted into his lap after a couple of unusually strong gin and tonics. Both times, I passed out before things could progress very far, and Rick has since had to refine his technique.
Alex, meanwhile, has been permitted the very rare luxury of a dram or so of wine with his own meal--well, a little more than that, although Rick doesn't think I saw him sneaking a splash into his son's glass here and there--and it's made him very ebullient. He talks rapidly on about his hieratic lessons, which are progressing quite nicely, and interrogates Jonathan about the new additions to my brother's burgeoning record collection. Both Alex and Jonathan are enamoured of this new American phenomenon, jazz. To me it sounds mostly like instrumental screaming and moaning. I don't suppose I've ever been very "with it" in terms of music; I do very well with my Gilbert and Sullivan recordings, and I tell them as much. The two of them look at me as though I'm some sort of creature from another world, then return to their discussion of the relative merits of this or that musician.
Jonathan and Alex are closer than ever these days, friends for life thanks to the trials they have shared. Their constant chatter makes it difficult for either Rick or I to get a word in edgewise. It's been like this for years, since Alex was small. In fact, Jonathan was responsible for Alex's first word--a word I'd rather not repeat.
"And I've got two new drawings, Uncle Jon--the funerary complex at Saqqara, and the temple at Abu Simbel!"
Jonathan nods at his little partner-in-crime, chewing a rather large mouthful of lamb and mint jelly. It's the longest he's gone without talking since he arrived at our door.
"Want to see them?"
More nodding and chewing from my brother.
An appealing little face is aimed at me over a half-cleaned plate. "Mum, may I please be excused?"
It's so nice to see my son excited about something that I don't have the heart to tell him to finish his supper first. "You may."
Alex springs off the chair. "Come on, Uncle Jon, they're in the library."
Jonathan makes a Herculean effort to swallow, then dabs at his face with his napkin. "And may I be excused, mum?" he asks me, already half-way up out of his seat.
"No, you may not," I reply austerely. Rick snickers into his wine glass. Jonathan halts his ascent, looking puzzled.
"Evie, old thing--"
"You didn't say please," Alex interjects, pulling impatiently at Jonathan's hand, his tone making it clear that this should be perfectly obvious to anyone with any sense at all.
Jonathan's expression changes to one so pious, it befits a member of the heavenly host. "Pleeeease?"
"Oh, go on, the pair of you," I tell them.
My son scrabbles off to the library, his uncle in tow.
Rick stands, picks up the bottle of wine, and moves to the seat vacated by Alex. He draws the chair nearer to the table, close enough for his knee to rest comfortably against mine. He winks at me as he refills my glass, then gives me that funny look, which he thinks is very dashing and romantic. My handsome husband, who, after ten years of marriage, still tries to seduce me every chance he gets.
"Just half a glass," I tell him, placing a hand on his wrist. "That's enough." He continues to pour. "Rick, just--Rick!"
He shrugs, stopping once the glass is quite full. "Might as well kill the bottle." He takes my hand, lifts it to his lips, then places it on the table, covering it with his own.
"Why, Mr. O'Connell," I say, oh-so-innocently. "I do hope you're not trying to get me drunk."
He grins. "I might be."
I take a sip of wine, then another. "I'd think twice, if I were you. My husband's a very large man. Crack shot. Arms like tree trunks. Never takes his boots off in the house."
"Yes, that's so. Besides, we hardly know each other!"
He moves his free hand to my knee. "I can fix that."
"I'm not that kind of girl, Mr. O'Connell."
"I can fix that, too."
"Oh, I'm sure you've just been dying to try."
"Since the first time I saw you," he avers, then leans in close--and tops off my glass again.
I chuckle, my head buzzing pleasantly at the sound. "Stop that!" He knows perfectly well that when I'm a bit squiffy I tend to get rather amorous. I believe he's counting on it. "Silly man," I add.
"So tell me... what's a place like you doing in a girl like this?"
"Right, you!" I squeal, and launch myself at him, knowing he'll catch me. He does. The chair, however, topples on its side, and both of us are thrown to the ground, legs all in a tangle, him slightly winded, me giggling helplessly. My head is spinning, but I feel so safe in his arms that it doesn't matter.
"Nice going," he remarks. I slide both hands under his broad back and squeeze him as tight as I can. He loves that. His large, warm hands caress my back and shoulders. In a lazy, purring drawl, he adds, "I could have cracked my head on the table, you know." My cheek is pressed against his chest, and the vibration of his deep voice gives me a lovely ticklish sensation all over.
"Mmmm," I say, cuddling closer. "This is nice. I could stay like this all night."
His only response to that is a derisive grunt, but he quickly changes his tune when I shift positions to kiss the V of tanned skin displayed by his open collar. Our mouths come together suddenly, urgently, and his hands begin to wander lower. So do mine. And then I move against him, in a manner which, well, ensures that I have his full attention. Perhaps I'm a tease, but he deserves it; after all, he started the whole thing.
"Hello..." He growls the word, deep in the back of his throat.
"Hello," I echo softly. We watch each other intently for a moment, and I feel a pang of regret that I can't finish what I've started, here and now.
"Jonathan's gonna... take Alex to a talkie," he informs me. He's suddenly short of breath. I can't imagine why.
"How d'you know that?"
"Uh, 'cause I asked him to?" As if on cue, the front door slams. Rick suddenly turns me over onto my back, kicking the chair halfway across the room as he does so. Leaning over me on his elbows, he explains, "I thought we could use a quiet evening in, with no distractions." He stops my mouth with a kiss before I can reply.
I am overwhelmed by love for this man--and not just because he's ready, willing and able to do (one would hope) some incredibly wicked things to me right here on the dining room floor. His generosity, his genuine consideration, his love, just makes me feel as though I am the most beautiful, brilliant, special person on the face of the earth. (And I'm sure the wine doesn't hurt, either...) "Rick," I tell him, when my mouth is finally free, "I really, really love you. Really. A lot. It's fantastic, you've no idea." I notice my words aren't quite coming out properly, but he doesn't seem to mind.
"You're a cute drunk, Evie," he replies, smiling, and plants a kiss on the very tip of my nose.
I don't know what it is about Rick, but it's rare that he comes right out and says 'I love you', to Alex or to me. Not that he doesn't care for us; but, for some reason, saying the actual words doesn't come easily to him. During our engagement, I would often vex him by asking, Do you love me? and then getting upset when his only response was yeah or sure, or the ever-popular dammit, Evelyn, I proposed, didn't I?! I don't know why I assumed his entire character would change, that he would suddenly begin spouting flowery phrases and insipid poetry devoted entirely to me, simply because he'd put a ring on my finger. And, after a while, I stopped asking, and simply listened to the words he wasn't saying--the volume of things he told me with every look, every touch.
He rolls away from me and stands in a single smooth, fluidly exciting motion, then bends down and picks me up off the floor. Thank heaven for that; I certainly wasn't going anywhere on my own. "I'm taking you upstairs."
I clasp his shoulders tightly, holding on for dear life as the entire room moves around me in a blur of colours and indistinct forms. "I'm not sleepy," I tell him.
When I was dying--well, no, when I was dead; let's call the thing what it is--I saw... something. Something unimaginably beautiful, something I can't possibly articulate. I was filled with peace, infused with a glorious light. I call it heaven, because I can't imagine it could very well be anything else. It was a truly transcendent experience.
And just now, with my husband, I have had another.
This time, I'm the one who can't help crying. Tears of joy.
I sleep, a little too soundly, lulled by the soft bed and the delicious warmth inside me. The room is dark and cool when I wake. "Rick?" I whisper. No response from the still form beside me. "Rick, darling..." When the gentle touch doesn't work, I give him a little swat. "Rick!"
He snorts, moans, then poses an inarticulate query. "Mm?"
"What time is it?"
He rolls over onto his back, exhaling forcefully. "Ugh. Dunno... three? Four?"
"Has Jonathan brought Alex home?"
"Uh... yeah." He rubs his face and mumbles through his hands, half-awake and barely coherent. "You were really down for the count. He was yelling his head off, how great King Kong was. Nearly woke the whole damn neighbourhood."
"Which, Jonathan or Alex?"
"Both, actually. I kicked one out, made the other one go to bed. Think I got the right one."
"Small, blond, mouth like a sailor on shore leave?"
He yawns. "That's him."
"Rick, I want another one," I blurt, not realizing the essential truth of the words until I've said them. But I do want another child. (A little girl this time, to balance things out; another O'Connell man to look after would probably break me once and for good.) Another little face at the dinner table. Another winning smile and cheeky mouth. Another tiny person to share the love of our household.
"Another what?" He's still mostly asleep, poor man.
"We'll talk about it in the morning." I nestle against his warm, bare shoulder. "I'm sorry to have woken you, darling."
"S'okay. Night." His arm curls around me reflexively. He is sound asleep again within moments. We've both become so accustomed to this: little talks in the darkness, reaching for the other person and knowing they'll be there. When I consider how close we came to losing it forever, it makes me appreciate these moments so much more.
Just as I am hovering on the very edge of slumber, something scrapes against the bedroom door. I sit up, instantly awake, listening out. The second sound is slightly more distinct: it's a knock, but only just. "Who's there?" I ask.
A timid, tearful whisper now: "Mu-u-ummmm..."
"Come in, Alex."
I switch on my bedside lamp, and my little boy stumbles into the room, blinking the darkness from his eyes. His hair is tumbled and dark with perspiration, and his face is flushed. He's been crying. I open my arms, and he snuggles into my lap, a soft, fluffy bundle of pajamas, child-sweat and sniffles.
"My sweet baby," I croon, rocking him gently. "What is it?"
Rick rolls over, turning his face away from the source of the light, and snores.
"I hu... I hu... I had a b-bad dream," Alex sobs into my nightgown, breathing hard.
I caress his cheeks and smooth down his damp cowlicks, stamping each one in place with a kiss. "Shh. Mummy's here. Everything's all right."
"I dreamt King Kong had got you, and he was climbing the Empire State Building, and me and Dad and Uncle Jon, we were in these aeroplanes trying to save you, only... only... we couldn't get close enough, and you fell from the building, and there was no way to bring you back this time!"
This was not the first nightmare, nor will it be the last. I wish I could tell my child what he so desperately needs to hear: that there are no such things as monsters. That nothing bad will ever happen to his mum or to him. But he knows these things to be untrue. Instead, I offer the temporary safety of my arms. I tell him how I love him, how I will always love him, no matter where I am, until the end of time. He says nothing in response, merely sits quietly and drinks in my love, allowing it to warm his heart and quiet his fears.
"You just stay with Dad and me tonight," I tell him, once he's finally wound down.
Alex shrugs and squirms out of my embrace. At almost nine years of age, he feels he is too old to seek the comfort of his parents' bed. He is wondering what the other boys at school would say, what his uncle would think of him. Whether his dad would be disappointed.
"I know you're a big boy now, Alex, but if it's just this once, it's all right." I pat the bed beside me. "You can sneak out early in the morning and go back to your own room."
Rick snores again, even louder than the first time. Alex snickers. Then he yawns, one fist grinding in his eye, and climbs up on my side. I put the light out and settle comfortably in the middle of the big bed, my back against Rick's, my face towards Alex.
"Don't blame Uncle Jon," he whispers. "Great movie... really smashing..."
In the darkness, my son creeps closer and wraps his small arms around my neck. A shudder works its way through his body, and he sighs and falls into slumber. His breath is sweet, and warm against my shoulder. It's a comforting sensation... at first. It isn't long before Alex's small form turns into a veritable furnace, and he clings to me as pertinaciously now as he does during the day. It takes a fair amount of complicated maneuvering, but I finally manage to extricate myself from his embrace and roll over, my face and neck damp and sticky.
"Ugh," I sigh, and flop back down on the bed.
"And you want another one," murmurs my husband.
"I thought you were asleep."
"I was, until you started talking about having another kid!" Which is total codswallop. I've been married to him long enough to know when he's sleeping, and when he's pretending to sleep to avoid a discussion he'd rather not have.
"Shh, you'll wake Alex."
"Poor little guy." He lowers his voice to a soft rumble, but persists with, "You really want to go through all that again?"
"Well, the first one came out quite well."
"Anyhow, I'll be the one doing most of the work, you just have to do the fun bit."
I could hear the smile in his voice. "Yeah, I do like the fun bit."
"I know you do."
"You just want a girl."
He considers this, and his answer seems to surprise him. "I do, actually. Although if she turns out like you, I might have to lock her in her room until she's about thirty."
"What d'you mean, 'turns out like me'?"
"Well, clumsy, stubborn, gorgeous, and a cheap drunk, for starters... first time she says no harm ever came from reading a book, I'm packing her off to a convent."
"Hmph. If that's what you really think of me, I don't know if we should be discussing having another child together."
"I said gorgeous, didn't I?"
"Oh, go back to sleep."
Surprisingly, he obeys without further comment.
And so, once again, I am left alone with my thoughts. Such as they are, at half four in the morning. In a few hours, I will be tired and irritable: the restless night, combined with my overindulgence at dinner, will certainly see to that. The spectres of tasks yet uncompleted will begin to tug at me, coaxing me out of bed and away from everything truly important in my life. But for now, I am as happy as I have ever been, and I don't want to go to sleep, for fear I'll miss a moment of it.
Truly, heaven was not as sweet as this.