At Larkrise, they slip easily into a routine. With Teddy Lovall and family living elsewhere these days, it's easy for Una to take over the kitchen. Faith doesn't resist; She isn't at home to do it. Besides, after years of Teddy Lovall's cooking, Una suspects Faith forgets what little culinary ability she gleaned from Rosemary Meredith.
But even this leaves long stretches of day vacant because Una has neither camp nor Anglo-Chinese School to run. Young Isobel Blythe quickly commandeers Robin, and despite the gap in ages, the girls develop a fast, firm friendship. Una suspects that it's something to do with Isobel's vivacity. It reminds Una of the other children in the camp, the way they adventured and made games from nothing. There's a touch of Elise in Isobel too, not just the dancing, but her etherealness. Though whether or not Robin realizes this is debatable. It's a long time since Robin asked for her young dancer mother. Or perhaps it's that both girls have something of the changeling in those eyes of theirs.
It's on one of these days, with Robin in the presumably-capable hands of Shirley Blythe's elfin girl, Una takes a leisurely afternoon to peruse Kingsport's second-hand bookshops. Their windows brim with worn, leather books, and their interiors smell of slightly foxed paper and long-dried ink. The light spills warm and lambent across yellowing pages, some of which crackle to the touch. Una selects a shop at random and disappears first into the cookery section. She finds it soothing the way tea is soothing. Descriptions of favourite recipes like old friends wink at her from the pages. She comes away with a copy of Simple Vegetarian Cookery and The Meatless Menu Book.
There's no need for anything more expansive. The old staples, crisp roasts, sides of this and legs of that are still ensconced in a corner of Una's brain. Sometimes, when Bernice rostered herself and Una onto kitchen duty of an evening, they took them out and aired them, like old dresses, to stop them getting moth-eaten. As they pulled weevils out of the rice Bernice would say, 'You start by browning the butter, lightly…'
Or, as she sorted mouldering fruit from edible, careful to save the maggots for Joan, Una might say, 'To start, rub thoroughly with a paste of garlic and onion…'
Perhaps Bernice would say, surveying their dubious sun-baked bounty, 'Tonight I think we'll make a roast. All the the trimmings. Sprouts, bacon, the lot. What do you think?'
'Does anyone,' Una would ask, 'like sprouts?'
'My Robert does,' was Bernice's unfailing answer. This was before they knew Robert was dead.
The ghosts circle close, and it's an effortless step into the poetry aisle, where an empurpled leather cover of Yeats, Collected Poems peaks out from among the shelves. It has gold trim, and on the spine a silver fish. Una picks up that, too. A finger moves from her own silver fish to caress Song of the Wandering Ægnus, The Stolen Child, The Second Coming… Una trails her fingers over the spines of other old friends. The Lady of Shallot with charcoal illustrations. Marmion, Keats' Endymion and what Percival Curtis once called 'All the old stuff.'
Una smiles at the memory. She still had the watch Carl gave her back then, because the war was young. In the staff room of the Anglo-Chinese School, Percival Curtis quoted Auden and was stunned to find Una knew her way around his poetry, too. Una laughed at his shock and said, playful, I only teach the old stuff. I read everything. Now she picks up Funeral Blues and Other Poems for the sake of the memory. She hopes that somewhere, this man is still alive and teaching. He was good at it, and he was kind to her. He used to quote Una Shelley of an evening;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea,
What be all this sweet work worth,
If thou kissest not me
Of all the jumble Una recited for the others, that was Nellie's favourite. She adds the Shelley to the stock of books she gathers for the sake of both ghosts.
Walter will be glad Una doesn't only read the modern poets. Another turn, past more familiar friends. Idly Una hunts something for Robin. She peruses kite-bright picture books and worn copies of Ballet Shoes. Behind the till a dusty gnome looks up from his outsized log of sales, whence he has been squinting this last hour. It's not the gnomishness that startles Una. It's the white poppy at his lapel. Una wore one faithfully for years, every November. During this last war, she wore it long after the Japanese marched her away and it fell apart in camp. She hasn't seen one in a lifetime.
'Something in particular?' he asks. 'For a child, maybe?'
'That's right,' says Una. That she strings this much together cogently takes considerable effort. White poppies are things rife with more ghosts than the gnome knows, and they send any number of questions bubbling to the forefront of Una's mind. You too, first and foremost.
The gnome is oblivious. He says, 'What's her preference?' Then, hastily, 'Sorry, I'm presuming – '
'No, you're quite right, but I couldn't tell you. It's been a long time since we had books.'
There's curiosity there, but he doesn't ask. He steeples gnomish fingers under a twice-broken nose and his face splits into a grin, obviously one to enjoy a challenge. He hums as he crosses the room on soft-soled shoes. To say the shop is second-hand, the shoes are smart – old, but good, worn leather, and well-polished. Strong stuff, the kind you can smell after application. He did this recently.
'Not much, eh?'
'One woman had a copy of Goodnight Moon,' says Una, not offering context.
The gnome gives a hearty bark of laughter. 'Bet you never want to see it again. You were abroad?'
It's not a bad guess. Una gives the gnome a point. Deftly he reaches among the battered books and produces a respectable hard cover with a jacket depicting two children on an island. The red cursive overhead boldly proclaims it The Island of Adventure.
He says, 'It might be too old …'
'Oh, she's lived lifetimes,' says Una. In one of the uppermost corners of the book jacket a cockatoo soars, and why Una can tell parrots from cockatoos when rendered in watercolour of dubious merit is one of those things Carl has yet to answer for. This is one of the many reasons he must still be alive. Una adds Island of Adventure to her collection and she and the gnome walk back towards his table with the log book, chatting lightly.
Well, they are until the gnome says as he logs Una's purchases, 'Greece. Years ago. Thought that would be the end of it.'
'Singapore,' says Una. 'Until this summer. And you and me both.'
She doesn't mean to say it and evidently he never expected an answer. The gnome's hand jerks. His pen spits ink, marring the page. He blots absently and ineffectually at it with a shirt cuff, eyes now fixed on Una. She hands him a handkerchief and waits for a barrage of questions. All he says is, 'That would age anyone lifetimes. Come back and tell me what the little girl thinks of it.'
Una promises to do this. Probably she would do this anyway for the smell of ink, worn paper, and the fellowship of white poppies. She tucks her brown paper parcel under one arm and thinks Cressida would approve of this use of her money. She sent Una and Robin off with more than anyone could possibly need. But when Una pointed this out, Cressida harrumphed.
'It's you or my God-awful family that gets it in the end,' Cressida said and grinned the orange-peel grin. 'Frankly, I'd much rather it be you lot. Go on, tap into some of that Christian charity you're so good at and humour an old woman.'
The books make a diversion from the consulate. Una reads Island of Adventure aloud to Robin of an evening, and afterwards she makes Red Rose for herself and Faith and they relearn one another. If Faith looks askance as Una remakes her white poppy in felt, she says nothing. If Una can't bring herself to tell Faith about camp life or talk murder over bridge hands, Faith is sympathetic.
'Of course you can't,' she says the first time it comes up, and hugs Una hard. Painful-hard. White poppy and all. 'It's all much too close. You've got that girl upstairs asleep, to remind you.'
The Red Rose steeps tannin-heavy in eye-wateringly bright mugs, and Faith adds careless dollops of milk that whiten it to ghost-pallor. Una takes out the photographs not entrusted to the consul and tells Faith about the years between the wars. About fireflies and guavas, the spectacle of the bansawang, her work at the ACS. How happy Trinity House was. If she cannot make Faith understand that every Japanese boat they sank brought Una and her fellow internees that much closer to starvation - hence the white silk poppy - then she can explain this. That Singapore was not awful. Not always. That once it was beautiful, vibrant and home. It still is, but that is white poppy territory. Unexplainable.
Sometimes they sit in the uneasy, silent comraderie of storm-tossed boats at sea, Faith writing up medical records and Una perusing the comforting pages of cookery books and Yeats, one hand coiled around her silver fish.
Sometimes there are theatre excursions. It feels strange and alien to dress to go out of an evening again, but Una does it because this was something she used to enjoy doing with Li and Carl, and it seems unfair not to do the same by Faith. So, for the sake of the others Una dons the gown Bernice picked out with it's delicate sleeves and the blue-purple indecision of fabric and goes along with Faith and the others to see Mara in Elektra or perhaps Blithe Spirit. Mara Blyte makes an electric, ethereal ghostly Ruth. Sometimes it is Gilbert and Sullivan, and the convoluted plot made more convoluted by Jem and Superintendent Geordie Carlisle.
And though Jonas Blake's beloved Martyrs' Kirk was no more, there is still church on Sundays, the old Bundle Kirk of Una's Kingsport days absorbed by Hope Park on the high street. Faith still runs her surgeries for the Patterson Street hangers-on, but the pew rent is extortionate and the elders grumble about the smell of fish, so there aren't many. The outreach effort is nigh-non-existent, and Una alternately commiserates with Sam Blake and her sister on this point and writes about it to Bernice, who is quick to throw a haste ye back in the post. Instead, Una lets Judith Carlisle, Superintendent's wife, conscript her to the short-handed sewing circle of St Margaret's Anglican Church. That gets a raised eyebrow from Faith and ribbing from amassed Blakes, but Una can't and never would jump ship completely. She teased Bernice about the insubstantiality of Anglican doctrine in bygone days and she meant it. You can get your teeth into Presbyterianism with its tulip doctrines and brimstone.
Besides, damp stone and dust smell of the conglomerate Hope Park and Martyrs soothes Una, even if the cross over the pulpit is of the arms-upraised variety. The smell conjures Keats, I could not see the flowers at my feet/ nor what soft incense hangs upon the bough. All My Hope on God is Founded bubbles out of the piano, snug in its apse alcove and Una prays the trespasses and A broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. But always there's that moth fluttering at the edge of Una's soul and it whispers to her, Iris, Li, Carl and Emily's family…the rhythm of it a Scotch Snap.
Whenever it starts, Una sets off for the consulate, and every time it's the same. The Wedgwood clock ticks in Wedgwood time while the shoes of the young consul squeak their nervous, too-tight way around the room. He makes Una vague and unlikely answers about doing his best and missing people being like ghosts. This is surprisingly poetic, and completely redundant. Una is only at the consulate because her ghosts circle her like swallows at evensong-hour. Iris, Li, Carl and Emily's family…
Faith works in the daytime, or Una might seek her out. Faith likes an excuse for a good harangue, and the consul offers endless opportunity. Jerry doesn't, not these days, and anyway, Una can never pinpoint the best time to catch him on the Struan telephone. He's always off painting or sketching, even if the long-distance cost wasn't extortionate, which it is.
It surprises Una to find she misses long hours of work, even unto George Cazalet's unreadable handwriting and the thrum-whirl-thrum of those outdated Singer Sewing machines the Japanese had them all sewing on. It kept Una's hands busy and her mind away from the vexed question of Carl, Li and Iris. And it gave her opportunities to laugh with Emily over the young girl's imperfect handiwork and reminisce about Rosemary Meredith's skill with a needle or the time Una and Iris embroidered a tablecloth. Una never believed before the old Aunt Martha-ism that Idle hands are the devil's playthings. Watching Robin wrestle with dachshunds Yesterday and Tuesday, Una converts to the cause of Aunt Martha. The Larkrise clock sounds like Carl, Li, Iris. Absent-mindedly, Una starts the Larkrise mending, but she can stitch without thinking, and each tug of the thread also sounds like Li, Iris, Carl, Emily's family…
Often, Una walks after trying interviews with the consul to the bookshop that yielded Robin The Island of Adventure. At first she does it to keep her promise to update the owner on Robin's progress through and opinion of the book with the adventurous children and the parrot that is really a cockatoo. At some point in this discussion, about how to tell cockatoos from parrots and why Una can do this, it dawns on her that the books in this shop are stacked everywhere. Floor, counter, shelves. Being generous, they are half-organized. Being extremely generous, they are organized the way Carl organizes books, which is to say, they have been set down mid-thought in places no one, least of all the last person to look at them, will remember six hours hence. It is no way to run an office - an opinion Una and Li were forever offering - and much less is it a convenient way to run a bookshop. Una begins sorting them unthinking. This is what she did for Carl in the old days. No one, certainly not Mr. Swallow – whose shop it is and whose name she learns somewhere between cups of tea and talks of Blyton – stops her.
The specific when of this shift from anonymity to conversationalist becomes a point of immediate speculation among Una's Singapore correspondents, Emily in particular, though Iain runs her a close second. But by the time the question arises, Una forgets the answer. She thinks perhaps it dates back to his willingness to be charmed by Robin rather than irritated at first meeting as she scaled the mobile ladders and attempts to hang from them the way Puck taught her.
One afternoon he looks up from brewing imperfect tea and catches the beacon of Una's own white poppy. These being few and far-between, and unpopular besides, it draws immediate comment. Una accepts her tea and explains that after the war – their war, the first one – she sewed and sold them for charity. That she wore one stubbornly all through this war until the silk fell apart and Nellie needed the remnants for some medical emergency.
'I have relinquished all that ties me to the world,' he says, surprising Una. Emily aside, Una thought no one else knew the Commandant's pet text, much less quoted it.
'One thing that still haunts me,' says Una, 'is the sky. Where on earth did you come across that?'
The surprise is evidently mutual, and his answer oblique. Even so, Una is grateful when he promises to find her a copy of Essays in Idleness.
'Strange, isn't it,' he says, 'how people never stay Book of Revelations monsters forever. Even our enemies.'
Una cannot resist. She taught the text too often and lived in a Manse too long. Carl can talk insects, but theology is her territory. 'Revelation,' she says. 'No S. Everyone gets that wrong, except improbably, George Cazalet.'
The light inquisition that follows has nothing to do with the censure of white poppies or even with books. 'What,' says Mr. Swallow, 'is a George Cazalet?'
'One of the ACS's more unruly pupils,' says Una. 'He loved any thing with a motor and anything flammable. Both, ideally. And he knew his way around John the Divine better than most adults. I suspect it was because of the dragons.'
'I see,' he says. 'Not a fellow devotee of Yeats, then. I wondered.'
The idea is too ridiculous for words. Una laughs, because that is all she can do in the moment, and when it passes she says as she said once in the ACS staff room, 'I only ever taught the old stuff. Yeats was much too recent.'