The Fox and the Rose
By S. Faith, © 2010
Words: 52,845 (total)
Rating: T / PG-13
(I did not feel eight instances of the F-Bomb (scattered throughout eleven chapters) warranted a more mature rating.)
Summary, Disclaimer, Notes, etc.: See Chapter 1.
It was not unusual for Martin to come knocking on Mark's door in the middle of the night when he couldn't sleep, or had had a nightmare, though it seemed that Martin had suspiciously fewer of them since Bridget had started coming to stay more regularly. This evening was one of the nights Mark was alone in his bed—Bridget off to visit her own mother and father, who were in need of moral support working through a rocky patch in their own marriage—and he opened his eyes, pushed back the sheets and sat up as he called out for Martin to come in.
Slowly the door opened, revealing a thin slice of light from the hallway and a small head of haloed hair.
"What is it?" Mark said, then cleared his throat and said it again. He switched on the lamp.
"I can't turn off my brain," Martin said woefully.
Mark patted the bed beside him. "Come here."
Martin ran over, climbed up onto the bed and sat next to his father.
"Why can't you turn off your brain?" he asked gently.
"I miss… well, that's part of it, Dad." He fiddled with his fingers in a fidgety way.
"I don't understand."
He looked up to Mark with luminous brown eyes. "Do I have to wait until you marry Bridget before I can call her 'Mum'?"
The question stunned Mark; he had only really been seeing her properly for a couple of months, and while he thought things were going very well, he was hardly thinking of proposing yet. "Well," he said after a moment. "I can see why your brain won't turn off."
"I know," he sighed.
"What's wrong with calling her Bridget?" Mark asked. "It didn't seem to bother you before."
"Before, though, she was a friend who was a grown-up lady. Now she's your girlfriend."
"That isn't a problem though, right?"
He shook his head vigorously. "No," he reiterated. "But she's not a friend now. She's more like what I think a real mum would be like. She takes me for walks… helps me get my pyjamas on… says nice things about my drawings… makes me snacks… and plays cars with me." Martin's list was delivered with emphasis, a dramatic pause between each item as to underscore the difference between a mere friend and someone who was a bona fide mum. She might not have given birth to him, but she'd been more of a mother to him in the short time he'd known her than his biological mother had ever been.
"How about this," Mark said at last. "How about if I ask her what she thinks of you calling her 'Mum'?"
His eyes brightened.
"But you must promise me, Martin," he added, "that if she isn't ready for that, you must not be upset. I like her very, very much. I think you know that."
"And I know she likes you too," he said shyly. "She gets a happy look on her face when she looks at you."
It was an astute observation for one so young. "Regardless," he said gently, "it's a big step to go from liking someone to having them be… a mum to you, my little boy. Do you understand?"
Martin's gaze was as penetrating and unrelenting as any his father had ever delivered. "I guess," he said plaintively, "but she said she loved me, Dad."
"But what if…" he said, feeling as if he were treading on unsure ground, "let's say something happened and she wasn't my girlfriend any more."
Martin went pale. "What could happen?" he whispered.
"Many things could happen," he said. "Not that I'd want them to, you understand, but sometimes people expect things to be different than what they actually are when they become a couple."
Martin bit on his lower lip. He knew what Martin was thinking; his mother hadn't gotten what she'd bargained for at all, and look what had happened there. He hurried to conclude his thoughts.
"Not that she would love you less," Mark said, because he did not doubt Bridget cared for Martin very much, "but if she wasn't my girlfriend anymore, it might make her sad if you called her 'Mum'. Does that make sense?"
"I don't know," he said dejectedly.
Mark put his arm around his son and hugged him close. "I'm sorry. I'm making it worse and upsetting you. How about I talk to her about it and we'll take it from there?"
"Okay," he said. After a moment, he added softly, "I don't think she'd mind."
"If she wasn't your girlfriend anymore. I really don't think she'd mind if I still called her 'Mum', 'cause I think she loves me too much to want to go away and never see me again."
He wasn't about to try to make Martin understand that it was often far more complicated than that, so instead he just hugged him tighter. "I'll ask."
"Okay." He turned to look up to Mark. "When's she coming back?"
"I think on Sunday night," he said; two nights away had never seemed so long. "She promised she'd come and have supper with us when she gets back. Now it's time to go off to your own bed, count down from the biggest number you can think of to help turn off your brain."
He nodded, yawning broadly and showing off yet another lost tooth before getting up onto his knees to hug and kiss his father. "Love you, Dad."
"Love you too," he said, "with all of my heart."
Martin chuckled. "And then some."
He watched the boy go out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him, before he reached to turn off the light then lie back onto the pillow again. Barely five minutes passed before he realised that he now couldn't sleep. He turned to the bedside table, saw it was a few minutes past eleven. Surely she wasn't sleeping yet; surely not.
He palmed his mobile and dialled hers. It rang three times before she picked up, whispering, "Mark?"
"Yes, it's me."
After a beat she said, worry in her voice, "Is everything all right?"
"I'm not sure," he said. "I mean, yes it is, but I've just had the oddest conversation."
He heard her lightly laugh. "Can't say I'm surprised," she said. "How is he?"
"His brain wouldn't shut off," he said, cradling the phone, "so he came in here just now."
"All right," she said encouragingly, waiting for more.
"His dilemma… involves you. I promised I'd ask, and didn't want to wait until I saw you."
Another beat. "Ask what?"
"He says it's not right to call you by your name," he said, then swallowed hard. "Because you're more like a… mum."
She did not say a thing for so long he wondered if the call dropped. Finally she repeated, "And you wanted to ask what, exactly?"
"What you'd think if he called you something beside your name."
"Like…" He sighed, wondering if she was being deliberately obtuse. "He'd like to call you 'Mum'. But if you'd rather he didn't, or if there were something else you'd prefer instead, a compromise or something…" He trailed off. "I already prepared him for any answer, so don't feel pressured to say something you think he's expecting."
"Oh," she said. Her voice sounded choked with emotion. "Mark, I… that's huge."
"I—" he began, then stopped. If anyone deserved the honorific, she did. She practically was already doing the job. "If my ex-wife were to show up tomorrow wishing to claim him as her child, I don't think I could bear for him to call her 'Mum'. She never cared for him when he had a stomach ache, never gave him a hug when he needed one, never sang songs to him or read him stories, never brought him to the circus or made him a half-birthday cake. It would be fraudulent and not deserved or earned. It would be dishonest." He paused. "I know you've only been with us—with me—a relatively short time, but there's no one I'd like him to think of as a mum more than you, Bridget." He sat against the pillow. "I wouldn't ask you to do anything you weren't comfortable with, but by the same token I don't want you to refuse thinking I have an objection."
"Mark…" she said. "I just—"
"Think about it," he interrupted; she'd sounded lost, and he wished that she were there with him so he could comfort her. He felt selfish for not waiting to ask this in person. He should have known how she'd react. "God. I'm sorry to drop this on you right before bed. That was foolish of me."
"Why should any of us sleep tonight?" she said, joking weakly. "I… just don't know."
"Just give it some thought," he said.
"I will," she said. He could hear her yawn, and when she spoke again she forced normality into her tone. "Ugh. I should go. Mum wants to go to the farmer's market, and knowing her… crack of dawn."
Mark laughed, then sighed again. "I haven't upset you, I hope."
"I'm not upset," she said. "Thoughts in a whirl, yes, but upset? No." After a few seconds, she spoke again. "Good night, Mark."
There was another pause before she disconnected.
With a great exhalation of breath Bridget set the mobile back onto the nightstand. There'll be no getting back to sleep in my near future, she thought, then pushed back the sheets, reached for her handbag and dug in for the Silk Cut and her lighter. She then rose and hoisted the window further open; why she had to maintain the pretence of no smoking when her father and mother both smoked too was beyond her understanding.
She drew in deeply as she lit a fag and leaned on the window sill, and she considered what Mark was asking. There was an initial shock that was still waning, but the longer she sat puffing in the dark and still of the night, the more things came into focus.
Being with Mark was wonderful, and she preferred to think that if he'd had no son, they might have found one another anyway. There had never been a single moment, not one, when she saw Martin as an obstacle to her happiness, when she'd wished Mark had no child. Martin added to the joy, even if he sometimes (albeit minimally) added to the frustration.
And then it struck her; the implications nearly made her drop her cigarette into the bushes below: this was not something a single father would ask a just-for-now girl. He hadn't even said the 'l' word to her yet—and he was advocating for her taking on the mantle of 'Mum'?
"No pressure, Bridge," she muttered in a raspy voice, stubbing the butt end of the ciggie into the ashtray on the sill. She sighed heavily, coming to realise that despite all of her mental objections, in many ways she already considered Martin as something of a son. She could not think of any circumstance in which she would no longer feel that way for him, even if things went sour between herself and Mark. It was that same unconditional love one would expect to have for a child, a love which his own natural mother had apparently never possessed… and if he and his father specifically approved of her to take on that title, that role, how else could she possibly feel but honoured and humbled?
She threw her cigarette packet and lighter down onto the bedside table; it went skittering off and onto the floor, but she didn't care. She was too busy reaching for her mobile and punching in Mark's speed dial number with far more force than strictly necessary.
"Hello. Yes. Mark Darcy speaking," he said groggily, clearly sleep addled and not looking at the display to see who was calling.
"Mark," she said, trying not to chuckle. "It's me."
"Nothing," she said, then furrowed her brow. "Why would something be wrong?"
There was a bit of rustling, as if he were turning over in bed. "It's three in the morning."
"Oh, Christ. I'm so sorry. I had no idea it had gotten so late…"
"Who is it?" asked a third voice. "Is it bad stuff?" She realised then it was Martin's voice.
"He still couldn't sleep," Mark explained.
"Tell him it's not bad stuff," said Bridget with a smile. "Tell him if he likes he can talk to… well, to the lady he wants to call 'Mum'."
"You've decided already."
She nodded, then said (as it occurred to her he couldn't actually see her nodding), "Yes."
"Yes, you decided, or—"
She chuckled. "He can call me Mum if he likes. If it's really okay with you."
He was silent for a bit. "You're sure."
"If you are… I am. And it's far more important that you are."
"One moment." He put his hand over the mouthpiece as if to muffle the sound, but she could still hear him as he spoke to Martin: "It's for you."
"Me? Who is it?"
After a beat, Mark said, "Mum."
"Mum?" Martin sounded titillated yet bewildered. For a horrible moment she thought he might be in shock, too excited to speak because the woman who'd given birth to him had finally deigned to acknowledge his existence… but then he followed up with an enthusiastic, "Oh my gosh! You mean she said it was okay?"
She laughed even as she choked back a sob, sudden and copious tears in her eyes.
The next thing she heard was Martin's voice close in her ear. "Hi!"
"Hi, Martin," she said, feigning seriousness. "Well, let's have it then."
"Go ahead and say it," she said, smiling and sniffing at the same time. "Maybe then your brain will turn off."
She heard him giggle. "I love you… Mum."
She took a moment to collect herself amidst more tears and rustling in her earpiece, then cleared her throat and said, "And… I love you."
There was a weird silence on the other end of the line before she heard a reply. "I love you too." It was Mark's voice, and it was uncommonly unsteady and emotional.
"Oh," she said without thinking.
"Oh, you thought—" Mark said, then stiltedly finished, "Ah, that Martin was still on the line."
"Yes, I did," she said. "But you know what? It's all right. I still meant it. Just… didn't want to move too quickly with Martin to think about."
She heard a rush of air pass over his mobile's microphone. "You just agreed to allow him to call you 'Mum'. I hardly think saying 'I love you' is unreasonably rushed for our timeline."
"I love you," she echoed. It felt so good to say it out loud. "And bloody hell, I wish I weren't in Grafton Underwood. Damn Mum and her so-called 'friend' Julian."
"We'll see you soon enough," Mark said. "Sleep well so you can enjoy the farmer's market with your mother."
"Goodnight—Oh, hold on. Martin wants to say goodnight."
Mark passed the phone back to Martin, evident by the additional rustling sounds. "Goodnight, Martin," said Bridget. "Sleep tight."
"Nighty night," he said, then before she could say anything Martin hung up the call.
Sleep was not quick in coming and was fitful, and when she heard the rap at the door and the too-chirpy voice of her mother at seven-thirty she felt a murderous rage until she remembered the wonderful phone call of the night before. She was tired and it showed, but she didn't care.
"Darling, whatever is wrong with you?" Pam asked as Bridget came into the kitchen.
As eager as her mother had been for her to start seeing Mark, Bridget had been hesitant to go into much detail regarding the development of their relationship; she liked having this to herself, even as she knew it wouldn't last forever. "Nothing at all," she said, sidestepping the issue. "Just had trouble sleeping in that lumpy bed."
Pam made a dismissive sound. "You sleep just fine in that bed all the time," she said.
Colin blew air through his lips. He had been even more taciturn than ever during this visit, understandably so with the spectre of possible infidelity hanging over him. Her mother had denied even having an interest in this Julian fellow beyond friendship, but Bridget had every intention of pumping her for the truth whilst out at the farmer's market.
It was over a bin of fresh cucumbers that her mother had broken down and confessed that she had actually seen Julian on the sly, and they had engaged in rather heavy petting, but had not had sex. This relieved Bridget immensely, but she knew her mother truly loved her father and didn't understand why she'd even be tempted.
"It just felt so nice to have some attention," she admitted as they stepped away from the crowd for a little more privacy. "Your father… I love him, but I sometimes feel a bit… taken for granted."
Bridget felt teary, and on impulse reached out and gave her mother a hug. "You know he loves you too, Mum."
"I know," she said. "But I get the feeling sometimes I could dance around naked with my hair on fire and he wouldn't notice."
It was a mental picture she didn't really want, but she did her best to be supportive. "Mum," she said, "he may have a… quiet way of showing it, but he does love you, and nothing is worth the momentary thrill this Julian fellow might have to offer."
Pam pushed back and stared at Bridget as if her daughter had sprouted an extra head that had taken to speaking Mandarin. "What?" she asked, her blue eyes red and rheumy.
"Well, you know what they say," she said. "'Slow and steady wins the race every time.'"
"I know what you mean," Pam replied, still looking puzzled. "I'm just surprised to hear you say it."
"Well, darling," she said, sounding a little more like her usual self, "to be honest, I always had the impression that you were keen on the more adventurous, naughty types yourself."
"Which is true," Bridget said. "I was. But it's not what it's cracked up to be. Adventurous, naughty types, as you say, are always looking for the next thrill. They get bored easily." She sighed. There was really no reason not to explain what had been going on for the last two months. "I have a confession of my own, Mum. I'm seeing someone, someone whose thoughts, emotions and feelings are not always obvious, but he's kind, funny… and as solid as anything."
Pam looked decidedly more gobsmacked. "You're seeing someone and you didn't tell me?"
"I'm sorry," she said. "I should have said something sooner, I know. But you have to know that just because Dad's feelings aren't on the surface doesn't mean they aren't there. You may have to work a little to draw them up."
"Is that what you did?"
"I had help," she said, thinking of Martin. "But yes, ultimately that's what I did."
Her mother was trying so hard to keep herself together, but Bridget could see her lower lip trembling with emotion.
"If you want, I'll talk to Dad for you…" she said, but her mother started shaking her head.
"No. This is something I've mucked up. I have to fix it." She sniffed, then smiled, reaching to put her arm around Bridget's shoulders to herd her off towards market again. "So. You're seeing someone? Is it serious?"
Bridget chuckled. "I think it might be."
"If you're happy, darling, then that's all that matters," said Pam, "though I do wish you'd given Elaine's Mark a chance—"
Her mother went on but she didn't hear, because as if the mere mention of his name had summoned him into being, at that moment, not quite four booths away, she saw Mark striding towards her with Martin's hand in his. He hadn't yet seen her, though he was clearly scanning the crowd for her. It turned out to be Martin who spotted her first, and he broke away from his father, visibly startling him until he spotted her, too.
"Mum!" he said just before impact with Bridget's legs. Bridget wondered if her mother might faint.
She crouched to hug Martin properly, but glanced up to meet Mark's eyes as she said to Pam, "I can explain."
"I ruddy well hope so," said Pam, who saw Mark at that moment. "Oh, Mark," she said to him. "Good morning! We were just speaking of you. I should have recognised your boy, though why on earth…" She trailed off, then looked to her daughter, who had risen with Martin's hand clasped in hers.
"Seemed a fine morning to strike out to the farmer's market," he said. "Martin was raring to go."
"My godfathers, it's Mark you're seeing, is it?" Pam guessed. "Why didn't you just say so? And why is he calling you Mum?"
Bridget disregarded her mother, only smiled as Mark stepped forward to take her into his arms for a hug, planting a kiss into her hair.
"Because he thinks of her as one," explained Mark gently. "And she liked the idea."
"It was my idea," said Martin.
Bridget pulled back to turn to look at her mother, who appeared to be shocked, but also tearfully happy. "I think you were right," said Pam. "You know, serious."
They began to walk through the rest of farmer's market. She watched as Martin looked in fascination at the tables and tables of fresh produce, jams and even baked sweets, and was equally amused to watch Pam revert to protective mother with him, taking his hand, admonishing him not to touch anything and explaining when asked what this vegetable or that fruit was.
"He hasn't been to one of these before," Mark explained, walking with her hand in his. "Plus, he was dying to try out your new moniker."
She chuckled, squeezing his hand just as she caught a snatch of conversation between her mother and—well, she supposed she should start thinking of him in terms of 'son', if he was going to call her 'Mum'.
"So you're her mum?" asked Martin.
"Yes, darling, I am," Pam replied. She thought it sweet they were walking hand in hand.
"So does that mean I should call you 'Granny'?"
Bridget half-expected her mother to go into a fit of seizure at the thought of being referred to as a granny—illogical, as she'd been pestering Bridget to find a man, get married and have babies for years—but instead she merely asked, "'Should'? Sweetheart, you can if you like. But you're not required."
"What else would I call you, though?"
Pam seemed to realise his logic, at calling her daughter 'Mum' but her 'Pam'. "Point taken," she said.
Mark leaned in close to her. "How's everything going with your parents?"
"Mum and I had a breakthrough," said Bridget. "She's going to work things out with Dad on her own."
"Glad to hear it," he said, "and I say that for unselfish as well as selfish reasons."
He released her hand to slip his arm around her waist. "I want to take you home," he murmured into her ear. "Today rather than tomorrow."
"What about Martin?"
"Perhaps Constance could use a play date," he said.
She smiled, then reciprocated with her arm about him. "Perhaps."
Mark purchased some apples and pears, which thrilled Martin to no end. They returned to have lunch with the Joneses; Colin Jones seemed very pleased indeed to suddenly have a grandson of sorts, and very surprised at his wife's sudden turn of attitude. Shortly after eating Bridget gathered her travel bag and they made their excuses, but not before giving her father a long hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"Glad to see you so happy, pumpkin," Mark overheard him say to his daughter, "but really, you shouldn't be keeping this sort of happiness from us."
"I know," she said. "I'm sorry. But you know how Mum can be."
"Yes," he said, "and to be frank, I'd worry if she were any other way."
Bridget chuckled, kissed him again, then pulled away, said her goodbyes, and they were off.
Whilst in transit, Bridget rang up to see if Magda might be willing to have Martin over for a few hours. He saw out of the corner of his eye that she was flushing beet red as she said, "Yes," leading him to speculate that her friend had guessed the reason for wanting Martin out of the house for a little while. He looked to her then reached his left hand out to cover hers.
After eating one of the farm-fresh pears, Martin dozed off; Mark thought that it did suit him better when his hair was a bit longer, and he was only a child, after all. All things considered, life was pretty perfect all around. He would not have guessed in a hundred lifetimes that the smoking, drinking, verbally incontinent spinster he'd first become reacquainted with half a year ago would turn out to be the partner he'd always wanted and doubted he'd ever find, one who loved his child as if he were her own, and one for whom those feelings were reciprocated in full. When they arrived back to London, he would stop at Jeremy's and find Constance beside herself to see her friend Martin; then he'd take her home, whisper directly into her ear exactly how much he loved her, and then show her.
"It's bloody freezing out here," muttered Bridget.
"It was not my idea," Mark said.
"Wasn't mine either," she retorted. "Good thing he's cute."
She looked over to where Martin sat on a blanket on the bonnet of the car, which was parked on a country lane just outside of Grafton Underwood. The newly turned seven-year old was bundled up in a jacket and knit hat, his curls peeking out from the lower edge, his face turned up to the crystal clear night sky in rapt fascination. She looked to Mark once more as he leaned against the driver's side door, and as she exhaled she watched her breath trail up into the darkness.
"Yes," agreed Mark. "But I was referring to your jacket, and my prior suggestion that you wear a heavier coat."
"Shush," she said. She reached out her gloved hand for the edge of his long, capacious woollen overcoat. "You, on the other hand… you look very warm. I don't suppose you'd be willing to…" She trailed off, cocking a brow rakishly.
"I might be persuaded," he said coolly, but she knew he was just teasing, particularly as he then unbuttoned his winter coat and held the halves open. Upon stepping forward he enfolded her in it as she embraced and leaned against him.
"Much better," she said, her leather-clad fingers combing along the knit of his jumper.
He kissed her forehead, then lowered his head to properly kiss her on the lips but stopped when her nose touched his cheek. "Good heavens, Bridget. Your nose is ice."
"And you're doing nothing to thaw it," she whispered, her breath curling over his skin as she spoke. "Shame on you."
He followed through, kissing her properly and at some length, before they were disturbed by the sound of Martin's excited voice:
"Oh, I think… oh, there it is!"
"Where?" At once they broke apart and went around to either side of him, following with their gazes where he pointed up into the sky.
"Do you see it?" he asked animatedly.
"Yes, I do! Oh, it's beautiful!" She was not sure exactly to what he was pointing, but thought it important to support him in locating the prince's planet. Then she did see it, something (a planet, a star; she did not know) shining slightly pinkish in the night sky, and put her arms around his slim shoulders for a quick hug and a peck on his chilled cheek.
"You know, perhaps at this very moment he's looking up and sees us," Mark said, thoroughly enjoying the spirit of Martin's discovery. "So… perhaps we should wave."
Bridget looked to him, her grin irrepressible as she and Martin began madly waving towards the sky. Mark did as well.
"Well," Mark said. "Mission accomplished. You found it."
"And we know exactly where it will be every birthday," Martin proclaimed. "So we can wave again next year."
"Sounds like an excellent plan. Now let me help you off of there. It's cold and we should get back inside." Mark held his hands out towards Martin to help him down to stand on the frosty ground in trainers that nearly identical matched the ones Bridget wore. "How about we go home to Gran's for some hot chocolate?"
"And more cake?" he asked, his bright brown eyes wide and hopeful.
"I suppose," he said, "but you know how your Gran feels about sugary snacks before bed." He opened the door and Martin climbed into his booster seat.
"It is a special day," reminded Bridget with a whisper when Mark stood again.
"This is true," Mark said. "A veritable birthday bonanza. Hope it's been a good day for you, too."
She smiled, thinking of the day that had been filled with her friends, family, Mark and Martin. "It's been great. I've never felt more—" Without knowing precisely why, she stopped short on the word she was about to say: loved.
He furrowed his brows, then reached to take her hands. "Surely you know that you are," he said tenderly.
She blinked back sudden tears lest they cool her cheeks further; it was as if he had read her mind.
"Loved," he added, mistaking her reaction for confusion.
"Durr," she said, popping up on trainer-clad toes and snaking her arms about his neck as she kissed him. "As are you," she breathed.
"Dad! Mum! Come on—hot chocolate!"
They both began chuckling at this missive from inside the vehicle. "Typical," he said of an interruption they'd both become quite used to. "Well, come on. Hot chocolate evidently waits for no man, woman, or boy."
She laughed; as her laughter faded, the smile remained, and though it was dark there was enough light to make out his features, so she could see that twinkle in his eye, the creases in the corners indicating he too was smiling, but it was more than just at amusement.
"Just grateful for a good many things," he said, "chief amongst them, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and your mother's parties."
She could not help but agree as she gave him one last little kiss before getting into the car. As they drove, she searched again for Martin's 'prince's planet', and once found, her gaze lingered on it until it disappeared behind a copse of trees. She felt the comfortably familiar weight of his hand on hers, and with a contented smile she turned to face forward, to Mark's parents' place, to hot cocoa and cake… and forward to the future.