A/N: Here it is, folks--the last chapter of Conception. It's a long one, and one which I started even before I had begun Susan's chapter. It's been great fun to write, and I hope you don't mind the length of this chapter. I had it beta-d, but my beta said not to cut anything, so here you have the extended edition, if you will. By the way, if you have a chance, I would love a bit of feedback on "In the Ornamental Garden" even if you hate it.
This is a long war. The Great War was longer, although this War is far from over. I am weary. I feel as though we have been fighting half a lifetime. I sent my children away as children, and they came back to me safe, but changed. We have tried to resume a normal pattern of life; they're even going off to school again, and I am getting letters home. Another sign of change: the letters are of a different nature. Edmund's comportment is completely different. He is no longer constantly in trouble; rather he is quiet and studious and receiving top marks in his year. His teachers write not to chastise him, but to tell me how bright he is. Peter is the one the masters complain about now. They declare him impertinent, sometimes even rebellious. But they are always so condescending when they write to me that I cannot help but feel I would be impertinent too. What's more, that's impossible to believe in my careful, well behaved, respectful son. Susan seems withdrawn and her schoolwork is suffering. Only Lucy is exactly as I would expect. Her teachers call her sociable but dreamy; sometimes inattentive but also very naturally intelligent. Even when offering criticism, her teachers sound pleased with her. This is no surprise: everyone loves Lucy. She brings joy wherever she goes.
We all need a little joy right now. It has been a wet and dreary summer, and the war drags on and on. I can hardly make sense of the news every day, although Peter tries to explain to me. All I know is David is out there somewhere, and I don't know if I'll see him again. The other day Violet got the telegram, the dreaded telegram, and as soon as she read it she started shaking. It was a full minute before she could even cry.
"It's funny," she choked sometime later, after I had fed her several cups of tea, one with a shot of whiskey in it, "I fell out of love with him years ago. But you get used to a husband, having him around, hearing him over on his side of the bed every night." She gave a watery smile and shook her head. "I can't believe I'll never see him again."
I was frightened then. What would happen to me, when I still loved David so much, when I sometimes took a pair of his pajamas to bed with me, just so I could have the warm smell of him near? The clothes can't still smell after more than a year, but I imagine they do.
Violet added something else which rattled me. "I don't know how I'm going to take care of my family now. Really I don't. Can I get a job that will pay enough? Will it last even after the war is over?"
Since then I have been worrying. What will I do? Will Peter have to leave school? Will Susan? I so want them to finish. David would want them to finish. He believes in education…
I shake my head to rid myself of these thoughts. Today is a bad day; I am following dark paths because the weather is so dull and grey. That is why I've rounded up the children and roused us all into a bit of late spring cleaning. The boys are tackling all the handyman jobs David used to do while Susan, Lucy and I clean the house from top to bottom. We all need an afternoon's good hard work to tire us out. The children have been especially quiet since their return from summer term. They were already different after they got back from the professor's, but sending them away to school this time has reinforced the change it seems. I don't know what they've been through and I wish somehow I could know and share it with them. Earlier while Lucy and Edmund teased each other, laughing as they beat rugs in the back garden, Susan watched them and shook her head gravely, pressing her lips together. "Really," she murmured, "I don't see how they can laugh like that, after everything."
I jumped. Her words were so foreboding, and yet they were a glimpse of what I want to know, the hidden life they had. "What do you mean, dear?" I asked gently.
Her head snapped around and she looked at me, almost as if she forgot I was there. Then her expression softened and she opened her mouth just a bit. Her face forecasted a confession, and I wanted to encourage her to it. Susan used to tell me all her secrets without any prompting, they would come out when I brushed her hair, or we did the washing up together. She hasn't talked to me like that in months, though. I tried not to look eager, but I felt myself leaning forward.
"Never mind," she said at last, haltingly. "It's nothing."
Peter came into the room then and gave her a sympathetic look and our connection was lost as she turned to him.
Now the house is quiet, the children in different corners doing chores. Susan is dusting and polishing in the hall; Peter is fixing a wobbly table in the kitchen while Edmund tightens the towel rod in the bathroom. Lucy, for her part, is sitting perched on the back of the couch with the silver chest on the cushions. She has been polishing the same fork for ten minutes, staring out the window at the rain. Her expression is so dreamy and distant that it prompts me to ask "Lucy, darling—is something wrong?" I ask her. Sometimes I get letters from her teachers that she is too dreamy; they worry she might be touched.
"Hm?" She tears herself away from the window. "Oh, no Mum." She smiles at me, a little smile that grows until her dimples show. "I just have the feeling that something wonderful is going to happen today. Do you ever have that feeling?"
I shake my head and come over to lay a hand on her shoulder. "No, dear." I wish that I did, though. I need to feel it.
She slides off the couch and comes over to me, taking my hand. "Dad's coming home, Mum. I know he is."
I put my hand on her shoulder and gaze down at her. Her face is shining not just with hope, but with certainty. My daughter is so pretty when her face lights up like this; it is impossible to resist a smile.
"That's our Lucy," Susan says from the doorway, her eyes soft as they light on her sister.
Peter is at her shoulder, and he nods. "And she has yet to be wrong."
Lucy beams at them. "I was telling Mum that I know something good is going to happen. Something to make us happy. I can feel it in my bones."
They nod, wanting to believe her, but I see the doubt in their eyes too. Edmund comes downstairs then, humming a song I don't know and in remarkably good spirits. He winks at Lucy and then looks around. "What's the matter with you lot? You act as though somebody's died."
I feel dizzy remembering Violet's grief, and I feel myself reel a step or two. "Ed!" Susan cries at once, as Peter reaches out to steady me. "Don't say such things!"
Edmund rolls his eyes. "Honestly, Su. Didn't you hear what Lucy said?"
Susan purses her lips. I nod to Peter that I'm alright and he lets me go, but hovers near.
"Even so," Peter murmurs, his brow tense.
Lucy goes over to Edmund and squeezes his hand. He winks at her, and they go over to sit on the couch. She offers him a cloth and together they polish the silver.
No one says any more, except that after a few minutes Peter calls for Edmund's help. I watch Susan, whose face is unreadable, her eyes lowered and her lips unmoving. Still I can feel the doubt and the worry radiating from her, the same feelings which churn through me. I gravitate towards her and we comfort each other. If the worst should happen, I know I'll have Susan to count on.
Lucy's expression does not change. Even though she sits alone, she polishes the silver dreamily. I marvel at her relentless hope, the light in her which never flickers. I cannot remember a day where she didn't smile at least once. I think back to when I was first married, when I woke up certain that each day was going to be better than the one before. I don't feel that way anymore. Each day I wake up worrying that everything in my beautiful life is going to be snatched away forever. Losing my children for months, holding on to David through letters and memories…everything makes it harder to believe. One day the doorbell will ring and it will be the telegram I've been dreading. I bite my lip, wondering if it's possible to get that back ever. I can't help but think that Lucy is merely expecting the moment when the doorbell rings and her father is standing on the step, injured slightly perhaps but otherwise not much worse for the wear.
Then the doorbell rings.
Peter and Edmund come out from the kitchen. We all freeze, staring at each other. It rings again, and Peter jolts to life, going to answer the door. I reach out and grip Susan's hand. Lucy slides of the couch and goes to peer in the hall, smiling already.
Peter exclaims with surprise, and Lucy gives a cry of joy and then I hear his voice. I can't believe it, but a second later, there he is, walking on a crutch. I want to laugh and sob and run to him and run and hide all at once, and my vision goes blurry. I hear Edmund cry "Hi, Mum!" as my knees buckle.
The next thing I know for certain I am sitting on David's chair, perched on his knee. I look at him with wide eyed amazement, and he chuckles. "Helen, darling! So overcome you can't even speak!" I shake my head, and he says simply, "Susan, go put on the tea. I think your mother could do with a brew" just as if he's never even left. I cannot believe it. I touch his face over and over again. Even though we are in front of the children, I kiss him. I think a wife has a right in such a moment.
Lucy kneels by her father's chair, leaning on her arm, and David pats her hair. I look at her blue eyes, so wide and innocent and certain of happiness, and I think it is only right that she came to me from a place drenched in sunshine.
Summer that year started in May. Overnight, the weather went from brisk and chilly so that I was fitting too-small jumpers on the children, to blazing hot. Everyone declared it was the hottest summer they had seen in years, and if this was only May, what would June, July and August be like? I soon discovered that it was nothing but three sticky babies in a stuffy house. Peter was restless, Susan listless, and Edmund querulous. They all seemed to need something different at exactly the same moment, not to mention David, who came home from his even stuffier office tired and crabby. All I wanted to do was lie on the couch sipping cold lemonade, but I had to run around trying to make four very hot people comfortable.
Even so, when David announced at dinner one night that he would be going down to Portsmouth to do research with the Professor, I couldn't hide my dismay. I needed David around. Perhaps he was in a poor temper, but he could sit with Susan while she lay on the couch listening placidly to the wireless as she sucked her thumb and restrain Peter's exuberance while I wrangled with Edmund. I didn't quite know how I would cope without him.
"But—" I started to protest, distractedly trying to feed Edmund some peas.
David shook his head resolutely at my protest, Edmund at his peas. "No buts, my dear. If I do this, I'll be that much closer to being promoted when the old man retires. If you want that bigger house, it's got to be done."
There was no arguing with this. Our house was still bigger than our one bedroom honeymoon flat, but that was the only thing it outsized. There were only two bedrooms; Edmund's cot was jammed into our room, and Peter and Susan's room was so small that I couldn't open the door all the way because it knocked into Peter's bed. Everyone had to sidle into the room. Furthermore, Susan was only going to get bigger, and soon she would need her own room apart from the boys. I had to accept David's parting for hope of his advancement. I couldn't really argue anyway; as his wife I had to support him. I did dismay a bit at the thought of managing everything by myself though.
The night before David left was thick and steamy. None of the children wanted to be cuddled, and when I checked on them, both Peter and Edmund had kicked off the covers and were lying spread-eagle. Only Susan remained decorously huddled under the covers. Despite the heat, I wanted to say goodbye to David properly, so I perched resolutely on the ottoman and lifted his food into my lap to rub.
He chuckled and leaned forward to pat my head affectionately. "You're a wonder, Helen. It's too hot to even breathe. Be a dear and run me a bath."
So we spent our last night together lying chastely side by side. It took me a long time to drop off. I could hear the lulling rhythm of David's breathing in time with Edmund's, but I kept reminding myself that I wouldn't hear it the next night.
Mother arrived the next day to watch the children while I saw David off. She was meant to watch all of them, but Edmund threw an almighty tantrum and we had to take him along. Though he was still tiny, scarcely a year old, I was sure he was aware that separation was imminent, and he was not pleased. When I shared this with Mother, she said I made too much of the boy, but I remained firm in my conviction of Edmund's perceptiveness.
Since David was going to be late, we took Edmund with us. We were both sorry to see him go. We stood on the train platform, I with Edmund on my hip, and he grizzled anxiously, grabbing for his father's tie.
"No, no, Edmund," I chided soberly, smoothing David's tie with extra care. "Wire us from Portsmouth to let us know you've arrived," I reminded him.
"I will dear." He was half paying attention, one ear cocked for the all aboard call.
I let my fingers dawdle on his chest. "And telephone me," I continued. I was trying to think of things to say to detain him just that moment longer.
"Of course I will." He paused as he caught my sober expression. "What's the matter, Helen?"
"I don't want you to go away," I whispered bashfully.
"I have to. We've been through this." I could hear the impatience in his voice.
"I know. I know," I said hurriedly. "It's just that—"
"That?" he prompted.
"You've never gone away before," I murmured. "Not even when we were courting. I shall miss you." I bit my lip and hoisted Edmund on my hip.
He regarded me a moment, and then he cupped my cheek. "You soft thing," he said affectionately. "It won't be so bad as all that."
Privately I disagreed, but I let him kiss me and feel as though he had made things better. As soon as he disappeared onto the train, Edmund began to howl disconsolately. I cuddled him and soothed "It's alright, sweetheart. Daddy will be back soon." But I was frowning back tears of my own.
Without David, things were as dreary as I feared. There was no one to talk to, no breath of fresh air at the end of the day when David would come home and change the atmosphere. It was almost worse when he phoned. Hearing his voice so close made me think he was just at the office and would be home in the evening. The children couldn't talk to him long enough. Even Edmund whined urgently to clasp the phone to his ear and say "Dada." Sadly, David had never been one for children's chatter and he never spoke with them long.
Mother came by to help me with the children, but she had never been very cheerful company. Sometimes Harold came by to do his duty with his new bride Alberta. Alberta was exactly like Harold, which meant I didn't like her very much. She was stuffy and fussy, and she always looked down her nose at the children.
In a magnanimous fit, Harold took us all out to Hyde Park for a row on the Serpentine. It was a nightmare. Susan spilled ice cream down her front and clung to me with embarrassment so that both of us got sticky. In his eagerness to explore and be outside, Peter managed to get covered in dirt, and he kept running back and forth in search of dubious treasures for Edmund and Susan. Susan refused to part with anything Peter found for her, and Peter would not be discouraged.
"Really, Helen, you ought to put a stop to this," Alberta said, wrinkling her nose in distaste as she shook the dirt off a weed Peter had pulled up. Susan smiled at her present and reached out a sticky hand to touch it. Alberta yanked the mangled flower out of her reach as a reflex. In reply, Susan shied further against me, clinging to my skirt.
"They're only children," I replied, frowning.
She scoffed. "All the more reason they should be taught. Look at this." She fretted her fingers together to rid them of dirt and stickiness. "Disgusting."
Susan tugged on my skirt and stood on tiptoe, cupping her hands around her mouth. I bent so she could whisper in my ear. "Mummy, am I disgusting?" she asked anxiously, repeating the long word slowly.
"No, my dove," I returned, kissing her sticky cheek. "You're as pretty as a fairy princess." She reached her arms up and though she was three years old, I slung her onto my hip and kissed her.
"Alberta," I said stiffly, "I'll thank you not to insult my children."
"Come, Helen. The world should not be sugar coated," she said, waving her hand dismissively.
"There's a difference between truth and insults!" I retorted angrily.
Our argument was cut short as Peter returned, accompanying Harold pushing the pram. Edmund was sitting up in it, his face red and blotchy. He was wailing with misery. I could see at once that nothing was wrong with him, he was just in a poor temper. When she saw him, Susan leaned over in my arms to touch his chubby little arm, shushing him sweetly. "Don't cry," she murmured. "Don't cry, Eddie."
I put her down and lifted Edmund out of his pram. Susan orbited to Peter and held his hand, sliding her thumb into her mouth. Edmund continued to wail.
Peter spoke up as the ambassador. "Is Edmund alright, Mummy?"
"He's fine," I assured them, "only a bit hot and tired." Harold looked so frazzled at nothing more than a little tantrum that I rolled my eyes.
"Ugh," Alberta scoffed, curling her lip as she regarded Edmund warily. "Do make him be quiet, Helen. The noise is awful and people are staring."
I set my jaw, grinding my teeth. "Let them stare. He's only a baby." I jigged Edmund and crooned to him, trying to forget my anger with Alberta. That proved next to impossible.
"You know, Harold," Alberta said nastily, "I almost think we should have a baby so we could raise it properly."
"Good luck to the baby then with a mother like you!" I snapped. I didn't even wait for a retort. I stalked away, calling over my shoulder, "Come, Peter, Susan. Bring the pram."
By the time we got to Marble Arch, my anger had evaporated, and I realized I was in a bit of a jam. Peter and Susan were exhausted. Even Edmund had subsided, grizzling unhappily while clutching his teddy bear. I bought the children a lemon ice from a vendor while I puzzled how to get them home. I didn't have enough for a taxi all the way to Finchley, and the prospect of taking three small children on the stifling Underground was too daunting to ponder. But Susan laid her head on my arm and said so pitifully "Mummy, I want to go home," that I knew I had to do something. I mustered up enough energy to fake it and gathered up the children. I got them down Oxford Street by making it seem quite the grand and thrilling adventure, and we boarded a bus. Peter told stories to Susan and Edmund all the way home, and the villains and witches all seemed an awful lot like Harold and Alberta.
When at last we arrived home, I ran a cold bath and dumped all three children in the tub. Susan gasped and shivered with delight when I pour the cold water over her head. "That feels good, Mummy," she breathed.
"Doesn't it? I wonder if Daddy is bathing at the seashore."
"Yes, I think he is," Peter said vaguely but knowledgeably as he tried to pry a smile from Edmund. Edmund was pouting stubbornly, trying to shy away from Peter's tickling finger, but his eyes were sparkling with unmistakable merriment.
At that moment the phone rang, and after giving strict instructions to Peter to watch the other two, I ran to answer it.
"Hello dear," David said on the other end of the line, sounding extraordinarily cheerful. "How've you been?"
I could hardly check my tears, it was such a comfort to hear his voice. "Oh David," I said, "It's been such a day!" I started to explain, but I had barely formed a syllable when he cut me off.
"Don't worry dear, things are looking up. How would you like to come to the seashore?"
"What?" I stammered tearfully, wiping my cheeks.
"Yes, it's lovely here," he continued blithely. "Quite lovely. The Professor said there's enough room, and he suggested you and the children might like a break from London."
I watched my expression change in the hall glass. From worn and unhappy, I turned girlish again as a smile bloomed on my face. "Yes, we would," I said, trying not to shout my excitement. "Very much."
The next morning I gathered three children, a pram, and a small mountain of bags and made my way to the train station. It was a daunting task, especially as all three were wriggling with uncontainable excitement, but I would not be deterred.
The train station was crowded, and that made me a bit nervous. The children were too small to navigate anything, let alone read and ask their way. I feared Peter or Susan would disappear as if into thin air. Edmund I stuffed into his pram, though he howled at the indignity. Edmund hated riding in his pram; I suppose because he wanted to be treated as bigger, like Peter and Susan. Because I was ignoring his complaints, he hurled his bear onto the platform where it was quickly swallowed by the bustling crowd.
"Mr. Boyd!" Susan gasped as Edmund, realizing he had cut off his nose to spite his face, began to cry in earnest.
I felt bad for Edmund certainly; he slept with his bear every night and would never be parted from it, not since Peter had stuffed the toy of his babyhood through the bars of his brother's crib. But there was nothing to be done. The porter was already helping us on the train and we were set to depart at any moment. I tried to soothe Edmund, and when I turned to him, Peter slipped away.
"I'll get it!" he cried. I choked on my shout of warning as he was swallowed by the crowd. In the end it was Susan who shouted "Peter!" I looked at her and saw her face was white.
I didn't know what to do. Should I call the police? Run after him? Grab the porter by his lapels and demand he find my son? In the end, my indecision froze me, and I could only stare helplessly into the crowd. Susan clung to my hand and cried in a thin voice, "Peter, come back!"
"All aboard!" the conductor called.
That sprung the catch on my voice. "No! My son! Peter! Peter!" I scanned the crowd desperately.
The conductor came by and said cheerily "All aboard, Ma'am."
"Peter!" I screamed again, ignoring him. I gripped Susan's hand painfully tight, and my knuckles on the handle of Edmund's pram were white.
Then, miraculously, the crowd parted and there was Peter, tousled and smiling and waving Mr. Boyd. "I found him, Ed, don't worry!"
Before I could remonstrate him, Susan broke free and ran to Peter, striking him on the arm as I was about to do. "You are very bad!" she cried. "Never run away from me again!"
Peter looked bewildered, blinking in surprise as she struck him. He turned to me and saw the disappointment in my face, and he hung his head as he stepped past me to hand the bear to Edmund, who was clutching jealously for his toy.
I knew he was already contrite, but I lectured him all while we settled into our compartment. I couldn't stop myself; I needed a vent for all the worry and all the fear of losing my golden haired son. I culminated with "Just wait until your father hears about this." Peter stiffened and looked up at me with pleading eyes, but he said nothing and turned away after a moment. Susan clung to me and remained silent.
Perversely, or perhaps not so perversely since Peter had returned Mr. Boyd, Edmund wanted to sit with his brother. If I tried to keep him by me, he whinged and fussed, but next to Peter he was perfectly content, hitting his brother with the bear when he was looking the other way and then raising his brows when Peter turned. Peter would reply with a thin smile which grew warmer with each pass until finally he grinned and pounced on Edmund, tickling him until his brother shouted with baby laughter, flailing his bear. Eventually Susan relaxed her hold on me and drew her thumb out of her mouth and went over to join in the fun. I listened to their play and watched the countryside flicker by. As I listened to their laughter, the panic and my resulting anger with Peter slowly melted out of me. I reflected that if I told David, Peter would certainly be punished. I didn't want his holiday spoiled. When they took a gasping pause, I called him over, patting the seat next to me.
Peter became dutifully contrite at once. "Yes, Mummy?" he asked, looking up at me with doleful eyes. I could hardly resist him. I wanted to cuddle him and tell him it was alright, but I reminded myself that my discipline would be far gentler than David's, and so I persevered. "You know what you did was very naughty," I said in my stern mother tone. Hearing myself talk like that always made a perverse part of me want to giggle. I wondered that the children took me so seriously.
He nodded silently, his blue eyes round and grave.
"Do you know why?" I pressed.
Susan was watching him now with her thumb in her mouth. The expression in her eyes matched Peter's. He glanced at her, then back at me. "We don't run off," he intoned. Edmund chose that moment to wave his bear.
"No we don't," I affirmed, still in my stern mother voice. Really it was just a poor imitation of David's disciplinary tone. "And will you do it again?"
He shook his head solemnly. After a moment he added uncertainly, "Mummy, will Daddy be very angry?"
Susan looked ready to cry at this thought; she hated to see Peter in trouble. I gathered her into my lap. "Well, if you are going to be a very good boy, then perhaps we won't have to tell Daddy."
Relief flooded Peter's face. "I'll be the goodest, Mummy, I promise." I couldn't help but kiss his golden hair, even though a nagging voice told me this was why David thought me far too indulgent.
I knew I had made the right decision though when we saw David at the train station. Susan bolted straight for him, and he swung her in the air with a warm "Hello, Princess." She giggled and kissed his cheeks charmingly. Edmund strained for his father, making urgent noises. Without complaint, David took Edmund with his other arm, holding two of his children at once, laughing as they squealed and cuddled him. After a moment, Peter went forward too and smiled up at his father.
For a moment I merely watched the tableau of David with his children. I admired the familiar crispness of his suit, the neatness of his moustache despite the heat. I had been so used to feeling David's absence that I was rather stunned by his presence. I hung back, simply drinking him in.
When he came and kissed me and said "Hello, dear," I blushed and felt the tingle I had as a bashful girl courting.
The beachside holiday was like a trip to another world. Instead of lying indoors with all the shutters closed, trying to keep cool in the dark, we played on the dazzling beach by the sparkling water. There was always a breeze which smelled of the briny sea, not a murky stir of dirty air, and the water was crisp and cold.
I felt something changing within me as well. I remembered that though I had been married five years I was only twenty three after all. I indulged in a new bathing costume which didn't look so old and fussy and which Susan swore made me look like a mermaid princess. I had fun playing at being fashionable, but of course there were women far more a la mode than myself. That didn't really matter, for smart as their clothes were, none of them had children as charming as mine. They were too prim to smile.
David was still working hard, and after that first night where we went out for dinner at a restaurant on the promenade, he was back to his usual grind in a different location. It put him in a much better mood, though, and when he got ready for work in the morning he whistled as he knotted his tie.
I hardly knew what to do with myself. We were staying at a boarding house, and so I didn't have to do any cooking, and as the maid came in every day, all I had to do was tidy our things. There was nothing to do but mind the children and divert myself.
The first day I was unaccustomed to it, and when I brought the children down to the beach I also brought several of David's shirts to mend. He was impatient with buttons, and they often came off. As I wasn't around to fix the shirts as this happened, there was a little stockpile, and I figured a little sea air wouldn't hurt the shirts before they were laundered.
Once I was on the beach though, I found no inclination to sew. The sky was too blue, the sea too green, the children too diverting. Near me on the blanket, Edmund was fascinated with sand. He picked up handfuls and let it run through his fingers, his dark eyes widening in studious excitement. I had forgotten that he hadn't seen sand yet, and it was wonderful to see him discover something. As much as I had admired the glittering golden stretch of beach, I thought that I hadn't really appreciated it until I saw it through Edmund's eyes, listened to his soft cooing of incredulity. I rubbed his little back, and that did not distract him one bit.
"It appears you have a little professor on your hands there," a voice said.
I was rather used to strangers commenting on my children; Susan was so beautiful and Peter so well mannered that people often stopped to comment. So I laughed and agreed, "It appears so." Then I looked up, shading my eyes against the sun, and when I saw who it was I started to my feet. "Oh! Professor Kirke!"
"No, no dear, don't get up," he said. He gestured to the blanket courteously. "May I join you?"
"Of course!" I exclaimed at a bit higher pitch than usual. I wasn't at all prepared to sit with David's boss, especially when David spoke frequently about how important it was to impress him. I moved over for him, trying to be as accommodating as possible.
He sat down slowly, with a grunt. "Ahh, these old bones aren't what they used to be."
I smiled, sorry that I had nothing to offer him. Frowning with concentration, Edmund waved a fistful of sand, and the professor chuckled, holding out his hand. Edmund deposited the sand in the Professor's open palm. When the task was done, he leaned back and, rarely for him, he grinned. The Professor made a game of putting the sand in his pocket, and Edmund giggled.
I was about to open my mouth to make conversation and try and impress him when Susan came running up, her cheeks flushed with excitement. Peter was a couple of paces behind her. "Mummy! Mummy! Look what Peter found me!" Unlike that day in Hyde Park, Peter's treasure for his sister this time was truly lovely, a delicate, pearly pink shell. I cooed over it. "That's lovely, Susan," I said with motherly enthusiasm.
She hugged it to her chest, beaming while Peter stood at her shoulder and blushed. "I love it," Susan declared enthusiastically. "I will keep it forever and ever."
I smiled indulgently. "Well, how about this?" I held my hand out for the shell, which she surrendered trustingly. With the point of my sewing scissors, I drilled a little hole in the shell and then strung it with a length of thread, making a little necklace for Susan. "Now you can wear it always."
Susan gasped with delight as I fastened it around her neck. "It's so pretty! Look, Peter!"
Still blushing, Peter silently nodded his approval. While Susan admired her new necklace, Peter noticed the Professor sitting there and he nodded like a little gentleman. "Hello, sir," he said.
"Peter, Susan, this is Daddy's boss, Professor Kirke," I informed them.
Peter shook hands with the professor even though he was only four years old. Susan looked up from her little rhapsody and saw him for the first time. She shied behind Peter and lisped, "Hello."
The Professor chuckled with delight at Peter's handshake and smiled kindly at Susan. He proceeded to win her over a little by pulling a half penny from behind her ear. He produced another half penny for Peter, and I sent them both running to the ice cream cart that was trundling by.
"You have very charming children," the Professor commented. "David always brags about his children, but I thought he was only like most parents. People can overestimate their children you know." I laughed a bit in spite of myself. "But I don't think that's the case with yours. Don't you feel they're extraordinary?"
I hated to boast, so I demurred with "Oh, every mother thinks her children are extraordinary." I watched Peter help Susan unwrap her ice cream and Susan wipe ice cream off Peter's chin. He fixed me with a look, and I couldn't help but confess my secret pride in my children. "David and I reckon that Edmund's quite smart. He hasn't really begun talking yet, but I know he understands. And Peter is so good—he always wants to help everyone, and he always wants to do the right thing. And Susan is so sweet. She's shy, but she loves the whole world." I subsided, blushing furiously.
"I hope you don't mind me saying so, Mrs. Pevensie, but I've something of a sense about these things. I think your children are destined for something great."
I turned to him quickly, keeping Edmund from crawling away even while my eyes were fixed on the Professor. I was too amazed to politely deny him. "Do you really think so?"
He nodded. "Oh yes, I'm quite sure. I had a feeling in my bones even hearing about them—David is not generally an effusive man, you see, so I found it odd that he should talk about his children so—but now that I see them I'm quite sure. Tell me—did you ever think of having any more?"
I blinked in surprise at his rather personal question, but something compelled me to answer. "Well, I'll gladly welcome any child God sends us."
He winked. "A girl, I think. A Daughter of Eve."
"Daughter of Eve?" I repeated, bewildered. I had no idea what he could possibly mean.
"Yes…two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve. I just discovered—they're waiting for them."
My heart started to beat faster. "Who is? Where?"
Just at that moment, Peter and Susan reached us. There were a few noisy, messy minutes where they ate their ice cream and tried to share with Edmund, who was very eager. The Professor was kind enough to help with them, and I was surprised that Edmund didn't start wailing and Susan came out of her shy shell a bit. Eventually Edmund curled up for a nap while Peter and Susan went to the water's edge to race away from the waves. I could hear Peter making up the rules of the game. "These are the hands of the witch," he was saying, indicating the waves creeping up the beach after crashing on the shore. "If she touches you, she will take you away forever and ever!"
Susan covered her mouth and gasped; she always bought into Peter's games wholesale. A wave came up near her and she shrieked, running away. Peter pretended to draw an imaginary sword and cried "Don't worry, Princess, I'll save you!" and he splashed around in the quarter inch of water.
"I'm glad we got to talk, Mrs. Pevensie," the Professor said, getting to his feet. "You mustn't mind if I say anything strange. A lot going on, you know." He tapped his head. "I am glad you could come and join us. When David said you were shut up in London during such a hot summer, I couldn't bear the thought. And there's more than enough room at the boarding house."
"It's been so lovely," I said. "Thank you."
"Not at all, not at all," he returned. Then he was wandering his way back. I watched his retreating form for a few minutes. Then Peter and Susan drew my attention, and I watched them playing in the sand. They were so young and blithe, still babies. Would they really grow up to be extraordinary? My children? It was a humbling thought. I was just plain Helen Pevensie, nee Scrubb. I never considered that they might be better than their father's staunchly middle class family. But maybe…maybe. With the sea air so fresh on my cheeks and the vast sky above me and the glittering water, anything seemed possible. A fourth child, children who grew up to be great people. Like a mirage, I looked at Peter and Susan playing and I could almost see them as adults, walking along a beach, together still. Susan was grown tall and beautiful, but she was still the gentle girl I knew now. Peter was strong and brave, like the knights in stories he so admired. I allowed my secret little hope to turn into a prayer that they would have everything, be everything.
We went back to the beach again the next day, only this time the children coaxed me to the water's edge. They held Edmund's hands and helped him to splash in the surf on his unsteady legs. When he fell with a wet plop into the sand they all three of them burst out laughing, and Peter and Edmund made a game of chasing Susan and me. Susan's little body was tight with the thrill of the game. She always bought easily into the fantasies that Peter wove for her, and now she shrieked and pulled me along, crying "Hurry, Mummy! We have to run!"
As we ran shrieking down the beach, I looked over my shoulder to make sure the boys were alright. As I did this, I ran smack into someone. Peter and Edmund started giggling, but I turned to apologize, feeling flustered. "I'm so sorry!" I gasped before looking up.
"And well you should be," a familiar voice answered. I looked up and found David smiling down at me. "You ought to watch where you're going."
"David!" I cried, swatting him playfully. The children laughed even harder. I bit my lip and reached up to touch his cheek very lightly. "What are you doing here?"
He shrugged. "The Professor said I ought to take the afternoon off and spend it with you and the children."
"Really?" I couldn't help but grin. A day at the seashore and David in the middle of the day? It was all too perfect. Seeing my smile, he allowed himself a moment of expressiveness and twirled me around, grinning.
"Yes really," he said, and then he dove after the boys, scooping Edmund up to his delight.
We spent the afternoon frolicking in the sand. David took each of the children out into the water in turn, and they came back to me with their teeth chattering while I wrapped them in blankets. This didn't prevent them from wanting ice creams, which David magnanimously bought. He was different that day; smiling and happy and for once, carefree. It was all I could do not to cup his face in my hands and kiss him.
I saved that for that evening, when all the children were in bed and he was standing at the window looking out at the moon over the sea. As I drew away from the kiss, I murmured, "Thank you for a wonderful day. The children were so happy, David."
"Alright you soft old thing," he said, rubbing the small of my back. I crept closer and rested my head on his shoulder as I wrapped my arms around him.
"I'm happy here," I announced. "I like having the sea, and you. Let's never go back to London."
He chuckled. "I would if it were possible, but there's no university here."
"Imagine if there was, though. We could have a little terrace looking out over the beach, and the children could play in the sand, and sometimes we could take walks together, just the two of us…"
He kissed my forehead. "You paint quite the picture, dear," he murmured. "You're almost as good as the Professor and his relics."
I tilted my head to look up at him, resting my chin on his chest. "What do you mean?"
"He's always on the hunt for these artifacts from a lost civilization. I've never heard of it before, and he doesn't say a lot about it, but sometimes he describes the place. It sounds idyllic."
"Wouldn't that be wonderful? Our own private world," I sighed. I reached up and combed my fingers through his hair. "That's just what I want."
He kissed me lightly, his moustache tickling my lips. "I had no idea you were such an idealist," he said with a little laugh.
I shrugged and kissed him in return. "Perhaps a bit," I said with a warm smile.
I could see from his face that he found my look winning. He bent his head and gave me a longer kiss, and I folded myself to him. After a moment, he drew away and patted my backside. "Time for bed, you," he said, but there was a familiar sparkle in his eye.
Somehow, lovemaking that night didn't seem grave and serious. I felt light, as though the cool sea breeze wafting in could carry me away. David smiled, and he chuckled softly with his pleasure. I had to do my best to repress a giggle of joy. And afterwards, when he was snoring gently, I lay in bed and stared out at the moon daydreaming of a better life for us and for the children.
And so Lucy came from that sun drenched week by the sea. She always carried that sunlight with her, that wild, free hope that could not be restrained, that laughter. Even now, when I could break down crying at the sight of David in his chair I'm so relieved, she is laughing. She sits at her father's feet and tells him story after little story and smiles up into his face and he, exhausted as he is, finds a smile for her. Everyone has a smile for Lucy eventually, for she carries the torch. She can see what we can't. I bend to kiss her bright blonde hair, thinking how very like sunshine it is.