We used to sit on the wooden floor of the spare room when we stayed at the Professor's house. The room was empty, save for a large, forgotten wardrobe, and we would sit ourselves down in the middle of the room in a circle. Lucy always insisted on facing the wardrobe – she claimed it was too beautiful to turn her back on. Peter would sit to her right, and I on his other side. Edmund would stand by the door or lean against the wall, but he always managed to drift towards us to sit opposite Peter. Then our circle would be complete.
We felt whole when we were there. Somehow we were able to push away our fear of the war and the unknown. A lot of the time we told each other stories – fantastic stories with witches and royalty and heroes who always saved the day. I think it was a way of forgetting the world around us for a little while.
The stories were always of another land, one that Lucy claimed could only be reached through the back of the wardrobe. It was our private kingdom, the place where we four children could rule. Hours would pass as we concocted stories about our country. They would seem so real at times that I would imagine I could smell the sea breeze and see the prairie grasses. I would lie in bed for hours each night, pretending I slept in a canopied bed in a room fit for a queen, with mythical centaur guards outside my door and talking birds singing me to sleep. Even when my siblings and I were doing other activities, we would refer to each other by the names we had given ourselves. Magnificent, Just, Valiant... and I was the Gentle. We had created a world that became such a part of ourselves that it seemed to become reality, our souls engrained with the magic we had spun.
Then the war was over and we returned home. We were ripped from our world of make believe and thrust back into war-torn England. But although I began to adjust back to my old life, my siblings had difficulties, refusing to let go of the stories of our childhood.
Lucy Pevensie runs over to her sister. She is panting, having run in from outside, and it takes a moment for her to speak. "Susan! Peter, Ed and I, and the others – we're going to have a talk. About Narnia."
"Narnia?" Susan's brow furrows at the strange word, before her eyes flash in understanding. "Those old stories? Whatever for?"
Lucy's words come out fast, jumbled together so that Susan can only understand a little of what she is saying. "Peter met a man – a writer. He told him and the man writes and he offered to write for us and-"
"Told him what?"
With visible effort, Lucy slows down and begins again. "Peter knows a writer, and one day when they were talking he mentioned our stories, and the man wants to know if he can write them."
For a moment Susan still does not understand. Then she blinks in disbelief. "Our stories? Really?"
"We're having a dinner party tonight so we can talk. Will you join us, Susan? It's been ever so long since you've talked about Narnia with us."
Susan bites her lip uncertainly. She is busy these days, with work and social activities, and it has been ever so long since she last thought of the stories she and her siblings used to create. She glances to her bemused companion, and asks, "When exactly is this?"
"Tonight," Lucy replies eagerly. "We'll be taking the train down this afternoon."
Susan has work for the afternoon, and a party that evening. Work she could miss just this once, but she had bought a new dress especially for the party that she was eager to show off. Besides, Lucy was right – she didn't talk about Narnia anymore. "I'm afraid I'm busy, Lu," she sighs. "Let me know what you decide."
Her sister nods slowly, shoulders slouched in disappointment. Susan wonders if she should take back her words – perhaps it would be worth it to miss the party after all – but then Lucy is gone, and Susan has done nothing.
Going back to boarding school was hard for all of us – especially dear Lucy, who had never been before. In the week before leaving we cried a lot, terrified at the prospect of being separated. The time at the Professor's house had drawn us together, and we had become almost dependant on each other to make it through each day. But of course, England does not care for such things as keeping a family whole, and so Peter and Edmund were to be sent back to their school, and I with Lucy to another.
It was hard at the train station to know that we would soon be parted, and Lucy's face was tight and pinched, the way it always is when she is trying especially hard not to cry. In our last hour before the train came, the four of us sat on a bench on the rails, trying to draw strength from each other.
Then, in a casual voice, Edmund whispered that he could feel the magic pulling us.
The story flowed easily from our lips then, almost as though we weren't creating it, but were reading from a script. A tale built up around us of our return to that magical land after a thousand years had passed to help a young prince revive an oppressed land.
The story was grim in parts, but wonderful in others, and by the end Lucy's face was shining, and she almost didn't mind when the train came and it was time to say goodbye to our brothers.
The train wreck is a shock to her. Susan stands at her work desk, a telegram crumpled in her fist as she feels the pain explode inside her. Her siblings, her parents, her friends – they are all dead. She thinks back to the last time she saw Lucy, only a day ago, and has to choke back a sob as her vision swims.
Susan can feel the eyes of her coworkers on her back, and she stumbles away from them to the small powder room on the second floor. When she gets there she collapses on the chair and begins to really cry.
Her handkerchief is soon sopping wet, and Susan wipes a weary hand unsteadily across her eyes. She has to focus on breathing steadily, and wishes for her purse which holds her makeup and spare handkerchief – everything to make her presentable again. In her haste to leave the stares of the other secretaries, she left it under her desk.
But Susan knows how to care for herself without such essentials, and sets herself to cleaning her face in the tap water, carefully washing the black lines of mascara from her cheeks. She looks at the natural beauty that is usually hidden by her makeup, and suddenly sees what Peter and Edmund are always talking about.
This thought nearly starts her tears again, and Susan tells herself fiercely that she needs to think. Think about what she must do, think about how best to tell her boss that she needs to leave, think about anything except the fact that they are gone...
To think that they are gone is unbearable, and to think that she could have been with them! Susan suddenly wonders if it would have been better to die in the company of those she loved than to be left alone. Why should she have been the one to be left behind?
And then, as she takes one last deep breath before pushing open the door to the hall, Susan wonders if there is still something she needs to do, something she is meant for.
The letter I received only a few days after the accident was bright and cheerful, a complete contrast to how I felt. It was written in Lucy's unmistakeable hand, with large loops and curlicues spiralling down the page. I somehow felt afraid to read it, as if believing my guilt would be written in ink across the paper in bold accusations.
But the letter was a normal, joyful affair, for Lucy had no knowledge of the fate that was rushing up to meet her.
Susan, it read,
We did miss you last night! It was such fun, all of us friends together again after so long. We talked about our stories for hours on end, and ate food like we always imagined would be eaten There, and talked like courtiers, and... oh Susan! We shall have to have another party soon so that you might join us.
We even created another Narnian story – or the beginning of one, at any rate. It is all about the King Tirian and Jewel the unicorn, and an evil ape and a poor, confused donkey and a conspiracy. And at our dinner party, we see King Tirian, and Peter jumps up and bids him speak in the name of Aslan, but the poor king is unable to, for it is like a dream to him, and then he is gone and we have to find the magic rings (from the Professor's story, remember) in order to send Jill and Eustace back to Narnia (because the rest of us can't go) and so we are taking the train down in order to get the rings this afternoon and...
Oh dear, there I go again, mixing stories and reality. It's much too long a story to write here, but when I next see you, I shall tell you all. We plan to finish the story on the train home – everyone's on the same train, even our parents, if you would believe that. We shall miss your contributions to this Narnian story, Susan, but I promise we'll fit you in.
I can't wait to see you,
P.S. And I almost forgot about the reason we had the party in the first place. We've come to a decision, Susan. I'll let you know when I see you next. Much love - Lu
Unlike when I first held the unread letter, I felt no sorrow at reading this. It was almost as though Lucy was standing beside me, telling me this final tale. There was no anger or accusations in her letter, and I knew I had been forgiven.
If only I could forgive myself.
The funeral is solemn, dark, and full of despair – everything Susan predicted. Afterwards she moves through the crowd of black, accepting consolations almost numbly.
A thick hand covers her own, and Susan looks up to see kind eyes. "I am sorry for you," the man tells her, and the words hold true meaning. "I was a friend of Peter's. He may have mentioned me – I'm a writer."
Susan breathes in with quiet recognition. "Yes – yes, I believe so. You wanted to write our stories."
"I had hoped," the man says, and he gives her another grim smile before he moves away into the crowd.
Susan is too numb to do anymore than watch him leave, but the thought of the writer and his words stay with her throughout that long day, and the weeks after. She finds herself wondering again what the decision had been, and she wishes she could have known the last story her friends and siblings had created.
Later she calls him. She asks if he is willing to write the stories still, or if it would be too painful for him.
"Wouldn't it be too painful for you?" he asks in return.
But Susan wants this done. She likes the idea of her sibling's memory living on in print. "But please," she adds, "Write it as though it were real."
My siblings and I were not the only ones to create these stories, either. We had told the Professor our story, and so he made one up for us, all about the beginning of the world. "I was there," he told us, his tiny eyes looking intently into our own. "Let me tell you all about it." I had never before seen an adult encourage our fantasies, and was fascinated by him.
When I went to America and Peter was to stay with the Professor, Lucy and Edmund were sent to stay with our cousin. Eustace was nothing but a nuisance then, but I believe the reason he acted that way was because he was jealous of Peter and Edmund. But somehow during their stay, Lucy worked her wonderful, loving magic and Eustace changed. He became nicer – that is the only way I have ever been able to describe it – and the three of them created another story about a ship, a dragon, and a voyage to the Edge of the World.
At that time I was just beginning to truly grow up. I was teetering right on the edge of the adult world, and when I got a letter detailing their "adventure" I scoffed at it and crumpled the paper in my hand. I was too old for fairy tales – one certainly never sees grown men and women sit in parlours talking of magic, after all. But that night I could not sleep, and eventually I got up from my bed and crept silently across the room to pull the letter from the wastepaper bin. Then I crouched beside the window and read it twice over in the dim light of the moon.
Three months later, after I had returned from America and we all had returned to school, I received another letter, this one from Eustace. It described another adventure that he had created with his friend, Jill Pole. But instead of excitement, all I could feel was a strange sort of jealousy. For so long, those stories had been a secret between my siblings and I. Now the secret had spilt. I couldn't help but think that it wasn't fair – what had Eustace or Jill done to deserve knowing such a precious part of our family?
That Christmas Eustace and Jill came to visit for a week. I remember seeing Jill for the first time, as she stepped uncertainly through the doorway to our home. I stood in the entrance to the kitchen, partially hidden from view, and watched as Jill did a wobbly curtsy before my brothers and referred to them by their royal titles. She did the same for Lucy, but when she moved towards me I gave a quick nod before disappearing to the kitchen. For the entire stay, I never let her say a word to me about our stories. I refused to hear the sacred name come from her lips.
So as my siblings began to reserve the talk of our stories for times when all would be together, I would make excuses for why I couldn't attend. And so it happened that I discussed the tales less and less, and eventually pushed them to the back of my mind as reality took hold.
The words she reads on the page are everything she remembered and more. Once again, Susan can smell the winter air, can taste the salty sea breeze, and can feel the thick lion's fur. The book itself is small, but it contains a piece of each of her siblings and so it is more than enough.
The writer is anxious to know if she likes it, and it is with complete honesty that she assures him. Perfect, is a word she uses, one that is rare on her tongue, but this book deserves it. The author deserves it, for she knows how hard he worked to fit each part together. Long hours were spent, with Susan on the couch and he across from her, writing everything she mentioned into his notebook. It made her feel as though she had gone to a therapist, not only because of the setting, but also from the feeling of release inside her. This is helping, she had realised one evening on her way home. The thought had caught her by surprise, so much that she nearly missed her stop and had to run through the doors just as they were closing.
The book is more of a success than she would have ever expected, and when the writer approaches her about a sequel, her mind immediately flies back to the time in the train station. "I feel the magic pulling us," Edmund had said, and before she knows it, her mind is a whirlwind of words and pictures and memories all jumbled together, and she can barely bring herself to say yes, a sequel, not because she doesn't want one, but because she's forgotten for the moment where she is.
Six books are published in the years to come, and for each one, Susan feels a little of that guilt inside her dissolve. Each book has a special place on the mantel of her modest house, with the figurine of a lion on one side, and that of a lamppost on the other. Each week she dusts them, before choosing a book to sit down with. Soon she's read them hundreds of times each, her mind not full of the pictures of the stories themselves, but of memories of her family and friends.
It is with finality that Susan sets out to create the final story. She studies Lucy's letter for hours, trying to find the hidden tale behind the words. The King Tirian and Jewel the unicorn, and an evil ape and a poor, confused donkey and a conspiracy, Lucy had told her. Slowly, hesitantly, Susan tells the writer of the end of that magic world, and the end of lives of the great kings and queen.
"But you – why are you not there?" the writer asks in confusion, his pencil still in his hand as he studies her face.
"I have been left behind," she explains. "It is not yet time for me to join them."
"But lipstick and nylons!" he protests. "Why are you so hard on yourself?"
Her mouth tightens into a thin line, and even though she does not expect him to understand, she says it anyway. "Because it is true."
And he looks at her again, but she says nothing more about it, and so he writes her earlier words down with his scratchy pencil and Susan feels the last bit of her guilt chip away from her heart and fall away.
A/N 14/12/10: It's been just over a year since I first published this, and I have a couple things to note.
First, this story was the winner of the 2009 NFFR Awards for Best One Shot, and the Rilian Award in the 2009 Lion Awards. It is also now available in audio form as a part of Revolution Radio, an audio podcast for Narnian fanfic. (Links to all these on my profile).
Second, a while back the site ate a whole bunch of formatting, and I've only now gotten around to fixing that. (But I AM fixing it, and that's the main thing).