David spent the day in bed, and the next around the house, missing church. It was a relief; church was hard enough to face when he was well, all of those English faces staring at him as they walked in. His appetite began to return, and there were fewer pieces of toast for the boys to share.
He ate well Sunday night and went to bed determined to make a full recovery by morning: Aunt Evelyn was going to the London Museum. She'd promised to bring him along, and he couldn't miss it. And then he was sick again.
He remembered the basin this time, and was quiet as he knew how. It was all becoming routine. He washed up, thinking of how he could manage to hide it so she wouldn't leave him behind.
When he came out again, Aunt Evelyn was sitting on the chair in his room. He flushed. "I'm better," he said, despite the evidence.
"I'm sure you are. You don't need to keep doing things alone, David!" She drew him near, even gathering him up onto her lap like one of the twins. He stiffened, then realized what she was doing and tried to relax. She had held him before, but he had never yet learned to relax. It was harder than a person would think from watching her children. It seemed as natural to them as a kid's nestling next to its dam.
He didn't have any answer to her. Didn't need to do things alone. He knew that, she kept telling him that, people kept telling him that, but it didn't make sense, it wasn't true. Everyone was alone. Some people were more alone. How could he remember to always go to other people? Why should he remember to always go to other people? Why share his troubles when he could take care of himself? "I'm sorry," he mumbled. It was a useful phrase.
"Poor boy. You're getting heavy, though." He raised his head, realized what close quarters they were at, and looked down again, vaguely ashamed. "Bigger and stronger, just like all of my children."
He didn't know whether to apologize or not—was he eating too much of her food? But she had never begrudged him anything, and there was always food here, always so much he could not understand it. No one was ever hungry. There was a clock down the hall; it chimed the quarter-hour.
"I wanted to go with you," he said quietly. "But now I can't."
"Go with me?"
"To London. To see the paintings. And the statues." Despair washed over him, almost as bad as being sick itself.
Her arms tightened for a moment. "David. Is that… that is why you didn't…" her voice was unsteady. What had he done now? Would she laugh at him? Had he upset her? Which would be worse? "Well, we will go to London another time. Tomorrow we will all stay home. You, and me, and little Lia. The museum will still be there on Tuesday! Even next week."
He raised his head that time, and finding himself still too close, slid down to the floor. "I can be sick then?" he asked, and felt himself smile like a fool.
"As sick as you want." She smiled too.
"Raddie moaned when he was sick. Like a gi—like a baby."
"He did," she confirmed. "And we all took care of him, didn't we."
"I don't moan, though." He sat back down on his bed and yawned, his whole self suddenly remembering it was the middle of the night and he was sick.
She smiled again. "It's not a rule."
In the morning, he was back to tea and toast, and the boys were off to school by the time he awoke. It was midmorning, and he was entertaining himself trying to fight his way through Treasure Island, which he'd found on Raddie's dressing table, by the time there was a tap on his door, and a little push sent it gapping open.
Little Amelia was carrying a book that was swiftly sliding out of her grasp. She managed to get in the door and then placed it—dropped it, really—on David's knee. He jerked his leg out from underneath, and she looked as though she was about to cry.
Before either of them could say anything, though, Aunt Evelyn appeared. "Thank you, LIa, well done. Now, David, I know how much you were looking forward to the museum, so until we can go, I thought you might like to see some engravings." She picked up the book and sat down, Lia pulling over one of the chairs the boys had left behind the previous night. "You might even try some copying, if you like."
He stared at her, at the book, at the corner of the room where he kept his drawing pad and his pencils. "Copying?"
"Yes, copying. It's one of the ways to learn, you see. One often finds—" he stopped hearing her, trying to absorb this idea of copying. Copying to learn. Well, and he had learned all about the art of the ancient ones, and even their writing, which was harder than these English letters that anyone could learn. He knew how to make everything correctly, the smooth planes of the clay, the faience, the painted figures with their strong, confident lines.
English painting—European painting, he corrected himself—was very different. He had thought, at first, that it meant nothing, but then he had looked closely at the world around him, and then back at the paintings, and back at the world, and suddenly it seemed he could understand how the world looked, to them. And it was how the world looked. It was just that it was not how the world looked if you looked at it with any other eyes.
It was soft, very soft, this English world. And that was appropriate, for everything in England was soft. The voices, the furniture, the foods, the faces, the people. Being sick was treated with more softness. They never worried, nothing was ever hard. It was nice, the softness, nice and luxurious. He felt guilty, guilty all day for living in it. The only thing that was not soft was their clothing, for that itched and pulled and made him long for home.
Their painting was the same way, soft and smooth of edge, no sharp lines but all dull, spread, pale. But when you suddenly thought like an English, it looked like people, and It looked beautiful to English eyes. Beautiful like Aunt Evelyn, who was the most English person he knew. Who had killed a man, for him.
Not so soft, then?
"How old are you, David?" He looked at her, blinked, tried to focus and think of it. "David?"
"How old. How old is Ramses?" he asked.
"Ramses? I don't see why—Ramses is... Yes, he's twelve."
He wasn't sure why he'd asked either. Ramses was soft like an English, and hard like an Egyptian. He knew everything and said everything, but he knew how to do, also. He knew how to fight. But he also did everything he liked and knew it would be all right, after. Whatever he did he thought was for a game. To show how much better he was. And he was much better.
"I am fourteen," he decided.
"Fourteen!" she said, and looked at him closely. "Yes. You might be. You have grown quite a lot—we'll need to get you some of your own clothing soon! Fourteen. Why, we must hurry then, if you're to go to school."
"I will not go to school," he told her. This was something he'd thought of, that she'd want him to go to school. He was prepared. The boys did not like school. He would not like school. He was not clever enough for school. His voice didn't sound like the voices at school. He did not look like the boys at school.
She looked at him, and he nodded solemnly. He had not argued with her before, but now it became necessary. "You need to go to school. That's what children do." Lia nodded, her golden curls swaying with her vehemence.
"I don't need to. I will learn here, from your books and from you, and I'll learn all I need to know."
Aunt Evelyn looked down at the book in his hands, at her daughter, and not at David. "You'll need to work sometime, David, to earn a living for yourself and... and your family, if you choose to have one. How can you have good, important work without schooling?"
David shook his head. He would not have a family. He had always known he would not have a family. "I will do this," he said, nodding down at the book. "I can do art. I'm good at art, and I'm learning the English ways."
Aunt Evelyn smiled. "You are good at it," she agreed. "But I'm afraid it isn't a very good living. Many of these people-painters, and sculptors, and poets-never can support themselves, or can only sell their work when they're old and gray, or-well. That's not what you'd want."
David was dubious. It was clear to him that he'd been earning more than enough to support himself back home-back in Egypt-and it seemed strange to think that he couldn't do the same here. He could always go back, back home, where the air was warm and he knew how things were supposed to go and he could do a man's work—just so long as he stayed away from El-Hamed, and he could, now, he was stronger.
"I can't go to school," he said in the end. "I don't need to. Ramses doesn't go to school." Ramses's parents would always see to it that he was cared for. It really was all a game, to him. It was hard to keep himself from believing it too.
Aunt Evelyn smiled uneasily, but he saw that little Amelia's grin was more genuine. He smiled back at her. "Ramses is… a very unusual boy," Aunt Evelyn admitted. "I don't think he would be well served by going to school." David just looked at her, hoping he was making it very clear that he wouldn't be well 'served' by it either. "In any case, he's back in Egypt every season—he would miss far too much time."
David had understood, over the time he'd known Ramses, that he had tried school once or twice. The results had made him all the more determined to avoid that fate for himself. "I can go back also. I will learn how he does." And try to teach him the difference between games and life. And, maybe, learn the games himself.
Amelia's eyes were alight—he wished he could draw them, right then and there, or would paint be better?—and all was well until he saw Aunt Evelyn, how her mouth was pressed together. He had hurt her, but how? She wouldn't have to think of him, care for him, worry about school while he was away. She must tire, soon, of giving to him. She gave to all of her children, and would give to them, and they'd never have to worry about anything, but she had to worry about what he would do to feed himself when he no longer lived in her home. And he was too old, much too old, he suddenly saw, to be living in her home much longer.
He was here, with people who cared for him, though he didn't know why they should, who were kind to him, though he didn't know why they would be, and some day it was all going to be ruined. Some day they would wonder why they had taken in a boy who wasn't even theirs, who was ungrateful and wouldn't go to school. And that day had to be postponed, as long as it could be.
"Tell me about the art. Please?" he asked.