In a small, well-appointed house in Finchley, two women were having tea in the wake of the war. The parlor in which they sat was very cozy and proper, and even though the china pattern on the teacups was mismatched (there was no complete set left in the house since the air raids), the tea was hot and the scones were fragrant and the clotted cream was cool. Looking just outside the window, one could see a burnt-out hole across the street that had been a neighbor's house.
Anne refilled her teacup and settled back in her chair. "So, Julia! You must be thrilled to have the children back."
"You can't imagine! Malcolm and I went to the station to collect them the other day and it was like somebody gave me my heart back. We're so fortunate Professor Kirke was able to keep them. And they looked so well, so strong and healthy. I missed them terribly, but honestly I think it was the best thing we could have done to send them away."
"What? You sound skeptical," a line appeared between Julia's eyebrows to show that she was perturbed by her friend's doubt, the same line her youngest son had inherited.
"No! Please don't misunderstand me. It only seems that you're not telling the whole story. Certainly you're happy to have the children back, but there's something else. I can see it."
Julia sighed and put her teacup down. "It comes of being friends so long. You're right, Anne. I've been watching them since they've come home, and they're just not the same children who left me. They've changed."
"Well, children do grow up," Anne smiled.
"No, it's more than that. Take Peter for instance."
"What could have happened to Peter?" Anne exclaimed. "He's such a lovely boy, always so respectful and well-mannered." Anne sincerely hoped that he hadn't changed. She had taken charge of the children a handful of times, and while Edmund could be a little hellion, Peter always charmed everyone.
"That's just it—he's not a boy anymore."
"Julia, don't be ridiculous! He's not even out of school yet!"
"I know. It's true nevertheless. He's grown up and grown away from me. You notice that he hasn't come in here yet? Usually he always stops in to say hello and sit with you a moment."
"That's true," Anne mused, sipping her tea meditatively.
"And he looks different. He wears the same clothes he left with, but he wears them differently. He holds his shoulders back and his chin up. He walks proudly. He's noble—there's no other word for it. I wish I could say Malcolm and I taught it to him, but there's no way he could have gotten such a noble bearing from us. We're just a quiet professor's family."
Privately, Anne thought that Julia was lionizing her son. Peter was a good boy, certainly, but not all she made out that he was. That is until he appeared in the doorway.
"Mum, Lucy and I are going over to Hyde Park. She wants to see the horses at Rotten Row," Peter said. He was wearing his ordinary clothes and he was holding his sister's coat, yet he couldn't have cut a more extraordinary picture. He stood tall, and though he wasn't very broad-shouldered—though he promised to be—he seemed to fill the whole doorway.
"Well, all right, but aren't you going to come in and talk to Anne a moment?" Julia answered her son, but she spoke timidly as if she had little right to reprimand him.
"I didn't know she was here." He came in and stooped to kiss Anne on the cheek. Anne felt a thrill of pride because somehow Peter belonged to her, belonged close to the inner circle of her heart. Though he was still a boy she thought he was very powerful. She tried to place what had changed about her feeling towards the boy she had known all his life. When he perched on an ottoman and smiled at her, she understood. She admired him.
Peter had barely been chatting with them a couple of minutes when she heard a strange sound. Lucy called as she ran down the stairs, "Come on, Peter! I'm ready!" Lucy never shouted. She was actually quite a timid girl. Anne always consoled Julia that her youngest would grow out of this phase, she was merely used to hiding behind her older siblings, particularly taking advantage of the protective instincts of Peter and Susan.
At the sound of his sister's voice, Peter smiled. "I'm in the parlor, Lu. Come and say hello to Anne."
Lucy bounded in and at once ran to give Anne a hug. "It's so good to see you! I was worried while we were away that something might happen to you or someone else we loved. Is your family alright?" The little girl touched Anne's arm solicitously, and Anne almost drew back in surprise. Children were not usually so charitable.
"They're fine, Lucy. All of them are fine."
"Oh, Lion be praised!" Lucy sighed.
Anne saw the way Peter's eyebrows shot up, and it was this more than Lucy's actual words that made her ask "Who be praised?"
Peter took Lucy by the shoulder and pulled her back to him. "Nothing. It's just a trick of speech Lucy picked up at the Professor's house. We all did, actually."
This seemed to satisfy Julia, who said "I've heard him say that before, I think. The Professor's a very odd character." Anne would have let this slide had she not seen Lucy twist her head round to glare at Peter and Peter reply with a silencing look.
He forced a smile at the two women. "Well, we must be off. I did promise Lucy. We'll be home before dinner, Mum," he promised. Lucy kissed her mother goodbye and she flitted out of the room after her brother, who walked with long, sure strides. Both women bid the children goodbye.
Anne was just turning to Julia to say something when she heard a commotion in the hall. It appeared that as Peter and Lucy were leaving they ran into Susan.
"Has Susan changed?" Anne whispered to Julia. She fervently hoped not, because Susan had always been her favorite. She reminded Anne of herself at fourteen, beautiful and a little silly and trying desperately to be a lady.
"It's hard to say. She's grown so much quieter. Lucy's so vivacious these days she overshadows Susan, when it used to be the other way around," Julia frowned.
"Hello, Anne!" Susan said, coming into the room. She smiled graciously.
On seeing Susan, Anne breathed a sigh of relief. Peter and Lucy were so different she had been wondering if she stepped into another universe, but Susan presented real, solid proof that some things don't change. She had grown prettier: her skin was a beautiful shade of alabaster and her hair floated in dark waves at her shoulders. She seemed too womanly for her plaid skirt and her knee socks, but all that was only part of growing up. She rose and held out her hands to Susan. "It's so lovely to see you, dear."
Susan took her hands and leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. "I'm so glad to see you!" she said in a beautifully soft and melodic voice.
"You're looking so well," Anne continued. "One could hardly believe you've been through a war. You're so grown up, we're going to have to find you some silk stockings soon!"
Susan smiled graciously, but only with her mouth. "That would be lovely."
"Did you have a good time at the Professor's?"
She appeared to consider this question for a moment, and a lot of things flickered through her clear blue eyes, though none of this reflected in her perfectly oval face. "Yes," she said at last.
"Good luck with that, Anne! That's all I've been able to get out of them myself," Julia laughed, though like her daughter, her eyes showed something her face did not register.
"Well, now sounds like a lovely time for a chat. Why don't you have some tea with us, Susan, and tell us all about your time in the country?" Anne said with an inviting smile. She knew she was playing a trump card. None of the children were asked to tea when company was over, that was the Pevensie custom. Presumably it started with Edmund, who was so trying sometimes it was impossible to have a normal conversation with him around. She had always understood Susan, and she knew that the girl would love to be treated as an adult and an equal.
Indeed, Susan did look wistfully at the tea set, but she clutched the book she was holding to her chest and said, "I'd only bore you, I'm afraid. We didn't really do much, just a little exploring."
"That sounds lovely, dear," Julia said, putting an arm around her daughter's shoulders and guiding her to a chair.
"Exploring is never dull," Anne chimed in.
Susan's eyes shuttled between the two women. "Even so, I'm not much of a storyteller. You ought to ask Lucy when she gets back, or Edmund. And speaking of, I actually must go. I promised Edmund I would bring him this book. Is he feeling any better?"
"I don't know," Julia answered. "I haven't heard a sound out of him all afternoon."
"You haven't?" Anne couldn't restrain her surprise.
"Well, I'll go and check on him," Susan said, cutting through their conversation. "Should I bring him up some medicine?"
"No, he had some not too long ago."
"Alright, Mother." She looked at Anne. "Well, please excuse me. I do hope we'll see you again soon."
"Of course. We have to get those stockings, remember!"
Susan responded with a vague smile before going upstairs.
"Such a little lady!" Anne breathed. "She's quite astonishing."
"Malcolm and I are holding our breaths for the day the boys start knocking. It will be any time now. But somehow, I think she'll have more power over them," Julia mused, looking at the doorway where her eldest had disappeared.
"And she's got Peter to watch over her," added Anne. "He'll take good care of her."
Julia smiled. "He always does. But Susan may not need it. She has grown so womanly and wise."
"You talk as if you were surprised by this. We always knew Susan would turn out right. I'm far more curious about Edmund. You mean to say he's been in the house the whole time I've been here and I really haven't heard him?"
Her friend leaned close. "Edmund is the strangest of all. You know how he was before he left."
Anne nodded knowingly. She herself had had many verbal battles with Edmund, and once he had to be severely punished because he had actually struck her. If she got along exceptionally well with Susan, Anne was forced to admit that she really didn't like Edmund. He was a troublesome child, and though she never admitted it to Julia, she dourly predicted that he would come to no good.
"He's completely different. The day we got the children at the station Lucy was feeling blue and he spent the whole ride home making jokes and trying to cheer her up. When Peter tells him to do something, he simply turns around and does it. Or if he disagrees, he turns around and tells Peter why he does in the calmest tones. And Peter listens to him carefully! It wasn't like that before; sometimes I thought that Edmund acted out so much because Peter never paid any attention to him. But it's all changed now. This is what I don't understand." She leaned back in her chair with a sad expression in her eyes.
"Julia, this is good news," Anne said bracingly. She reached over to pat her friend's arm. "I didn't think Edmund could change, but that he has—that's wonderful. Don't you remember how much you worried about him?"
"Yes, but I was supposed to be there for it. I sent them away, and now they've come back so different I hardly know them anymore. The day they came home we had presents for each of them. I had saved ration stamps for ages and went to the black market to find some Turkish Delight for Edmund—you know how fond he is of the candy. I thought he would be so pleased, but when he opened the tin he turned positively green. I should have been there to know what would turn him off from his favorite sweet." She shook her head and wiped away a couple of tears. "I'm being silly, I know."
"Not at all, dear! Of course this is hard for you. The children are growing up, and that means they're growing away from you. But you'll still be their mother. They'll always love you."
"Yes, but they don't need me anymore. Every mother wants to be needed."
Before she left, Anne went upstairs to use the toilet. She passed Edmund's room and the way and saw him there, propped up in bed holding a book on his lap. He was pale from sickness, but he was smiling broadly at Peter, who was pointing to something in the book and saying "I'm telling you, you've got it wrong. We came from the west and cut off their right flank."
"I planned the battle!" Edmund protested.
Peter winked at his brother. "I fought it."
Anne was so surprised to see Peter and Edmund not bickering, treating each other like equals, that the subject of their conversation didn't register with her. She didn't realize they were talking about battles until she was sitting on the Underground replaying the conversation in her mind.
Susan and Lucy were crowded into an easy chair next to the bed. They seemed like a portrait of their old selves until Lucy got up to feel Edmund's forehead. "You're not as hot as you were. I think your fever's going down," she said expertly.
"I'm feeling a little better," Edmund admitted, looking at his little sister with grateful eyes. Anne could not believe that Edmund had the capacity to look grateful.
"You should have come down to say hello to Anne, then," Susan said.
He smiled a very wise, adult smile. "She's not very keen on me."
"But she would be now," Lucy insisted, sitting herself on the bed. "You've changed."
"We've all changed," Edmund answered.
"Do you think they can see it? All the grownups?" Susan wondered.
Peter was thoughtful. He lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. "Hard to say. Some grownups are very observant. Nothing got by Ed, for example. But others are a little…"
"Stupid," Edmund finished, sound a little more like his old self. "Don't look so hurt, Lucy, I didn't say Mum and Dad were. But I don't know that they're as sharp as Professor Kirke either."
Peter sat up suddenly. "Don't you find it hard, coming back here? We're not in charge anymore. We know what's right, we know what has to be done, and yet we have to listen to our parents. As if we didn't know what was good and what was right on our own!"
Anne wondered how many liberties the professor had given the children at his house. She had never known Peter to have such a rebellious streak. Even so, she could sense how masterful he was.
Susan got up and laid a hand on his shoulder. "We'll have our moments soon enough," she said. "You're almost old enough, Peter."
He looked like he was going to reply, but Lucy bounced a little on the bed and said "Better still, we may go back! The Professor said we might. We just have to keep our eyes open. You'll have your chance again I'm sure."
Edmund closed the book. "I think that's the wisest course of action. Watch, and wait, and hope. And in the meantime, keep all the things we brought back with us."
Anne turned away from the door then, and went downstairs to say goodbye. She didn't say anything to Julia, but privately she wondered what kind of magic surrounded the Professor's house that it changed four children almost overnight and stuck so fast in their memories. Whatever they had seen, she felt she was surely missing out on something.
A/N: I am perhaps overusing the shout-out, but I did want to mention that Mr. Pevensie is only called Malcolm because of A. Amelia Black's story "The Way Things Are." When I tried to give him my own nameit wouldn't stick, so I went with Malcom and decided to do the shout out. Holla.