Summary: Every year Helen Magnus disappears from the Sanctuary around the first of July.
First of July
Every year Helen Magnus disappears from the Sanctuary around the first of July. She seems almost to fade away suddenly one day, only to return two or three or eight days later. Few have ever asked her where she goes and always they receive the same answer, "To the past. Just for a day." The Sanctuary staff, quite accustomed to her unusual and private nature, simply accept that answer and move on.
It's not much of a lie as it is, somewhat, the truth. In the early years, she doesn't have far to travel and later she spends half a day flying to England. Usually, if it's not too late, she travels to Oxford. Generally she just looks around the grounds, at the newest pupils and thriving minds of the University, and then leaves. Every decade or so, she sits under a tree near the south end of the campus. She used to study there, with Nikola. The tree is much bigger now, of course. She dreads the day when it will grow too old and be cleared away.
Her second and maybe third, or even fourth day in England, she spends wandering. She sips tea at cafes she once frequented or stares at the redesigned doors and signs that mare old landmarks. Every year something from her past is gone, erased or modified or stands desolate and forgotten.
When the first of July comes, she rouses early, while the sun is just rising and the city is still and quiet. It's only on this day that she goes to the cemetery. The London Cemetery. She walks slowly through the rows of white headstones, glancing at each as she passes by. Hardly any have names. She knows which one she is going to – fourth row, third on the left. Some years she stands and looks down at the carved stone; other years she sits right beside it, leaning on it for support. Always she talks.
She looks up to the sky and talks about planes and travel. She talks about her year, her colleagues, her research or medicine. Sometimes politics, sometimes war. She often says to the air, "It'll never stop, will it?"
When the sun sets over the cemetery, she looks at the name carved into the headstone. Captain Richard O'Neill. He was a pilot during World War I. He was shot down on the first day at the Battle of Somme.
She leaves and doesn't look back, doesn't look at the other names or other graves. She spends the next few hours or next day or next several days trying not to look back.
But she can't help but remember the way he used to smile at her or how good he looked in uniform. Or how he would stroll with her through the park with her arm through his and call himself a gentleman.
She always remembers the day, two weeks before he shipped out, when he asked her to marry him. She said no and somehow he understood. She remembers too the day she received the news.
Always he makes her think about Danny and his joyous laughter. He makes her think about Jack, as well, and his navel career. The times he would invite her on board his ship and what a perfect officer he was. She remembers Michael and their year Paris. She remembers that summer in Rome she spent with Marcus and all the trouble they got into.
And sometimes she even thinks of Nikola and John, and James and Nigel. She remembers Oxford and their adventures and their love and their arguments. She remembers her father and always she tries to remember her mother.
When the ghosts finally leave her, she takes her leave and returns to her Sanctuary and to the present. And when she does return, she smiles and talks about the past as if it was decades ago, a century ago.
And every year, as she walks back into the Sanctuary and settles back into her room, she thinks this was the last year. Next year, she'll ignore the first of July, the memories, the ghosts. Every year she thinks this and every year she visits his grave.