A/n: I can't express my gratitude enough for the continued support that's been given throughout this story. I hope that it's been an enjoyable and worthwhile read for everyone and I hope that you enjoy this last chapter. I was rounding up chapters that never made the cut to actually be included in this story, and I was a little gutted to realize there were six, and seeing as though I did spend a lot of time on them I think I'm going to post them elsewhere (most likely my side blog), just in case anyone cares to read them. I'll put a link on my profile tomorrow if anyone's interested. Other than that, thanks again! Happy reading!
autumn's blessings, a lasting vow, and a world of adoration and chaos
He kissed her awake that morning in their creaking hotel bed, his nose cold against her cheek.
Clara allowed herself to drift pleasantly between sleep and consciousness, only tuning into the world for the sensation of the Doctor's lips on her skin. It had to have been a dozen light kisses before she felt her mind drawing up and out of the web of sleep, and when she finally opened her eyes, the sight of his face sent her into perfect happiness.
He smiled softly, his eyes alight with joy that Clara felt she could match.
"Good morning." He told her.
She grinned back sleepily, her eyes drifting shut once more as he pressed another kiss to her jawline, his lips still curled up into a smile. She sighed contently and reached up blindly, patting up his back until she found the nape of his neck. She traced her fingers along his hairline dreamily.
"Morning." She finally mumbled.
The unexpected and unwelcome voice startled Clara so much that she jerked up, accidentally slamming her forehead right into her fiancé's. The Doctor groaned loudly in pain, immediately falling down onto the mattress and curling up on his side, his hands going to his forehead. Clara sat up and grappled at the sheet—which had thankfully been covering her already—and held it tightly as she sat straight up, her eyes traveling between the visitor and her injured Doctor, unsure who to address first. Ten spared her the choice.
"Always lovely to see you, Clara." He greeted.
Clara gaped at him, sitting casually in the cheap, stained armchair that reeked of cigarette smoke, a suitcase resting beside him. She turned half her focus to the Doctor and reached over with one hand, stroking his hip distractedly as she tried to wrap her mind around what she was seeing. The Doctor's brother was here. In their hotel room. In New York.
"What are you doing here?" She blurted out.
Ten grinned hugely, like he knew a secret so sweet he was privileged for it.
"I can't tell you." He replied smugly. "It's a secret."
The Doctor finally sat up, over his injury. He looked pitifully at Clara.
"Your head is really quite hard," he whined. Ordinarily, Clara would have kissed his head and suggested a cheeky morning comfort shag, but he'd let Ten into their room. While she was in their bed. Naked.
"What on earth is your brother doing in here?" She hissed to him.
"Heard that." Ten piped up. Clara shot him a distracted glare.
The Doctor flashed a smile that was identical to the one his brother had just given her, and she had half a mind to headbutt him again.
"All in due time, Clara." He promised.
She waited for more, her eyebrows high and her expression one of outrage, but he only smiled at her and lifted her hand, pressing his lips to the inside of her wrist in what she supposed was meant to be a comforting gesture. It did not comfort.
"I'm naked!" She exclaimed.
The Doctor nodded his head towards Ten. "Well, I made sure you were covered! And I warned Ten beforehand that you probably would be. He said it was all right."
Clara glowered towards Ten. "I'll bet he did." She turned back to the Doctor. "New rule. If we're ever living in a one-room set up ever again, the entire place is off limits if I'm not wearing knickers."
Ten piped up. "Blimey, Clara, are you trying to be hermits or something?"
The Doctor leaned forward while Clara aimed another glare Ten's way, giving her neck a long sniff. He drew back, wrinkling up his nose.
"Clara, I think you ought to take a shower." He told her carefully, his words sounding strangely rehearsed. "You smell like…" he stopped, scrambling for something Clara was unsure of. She watched him with her eyes narrowed as he floundered.
"Sex!" Ten supplied helpfully from the corner. "Like sex."
The Doctor snapped and pointed towards his brother. "Right." He looked to Clara. "You smell like sexy times."
Clara tucked her head and sniffed at her collarbone. She looked back up at the Doctor.
"I do not." She said in confusion. But then the Doctor was sliding off the bed and lifting the edge of the bedsheet, wrapping it around her like he was mummifying her. Clara was so confused she didn't even think to kick him.
"What are you—!"
"Shower time!" The Doctor sang. "I'm not coming this time. I can't. I've got brother stuff to do. I love you."
She allowed him to gently guide her to the bathroom, simply because she was startled and too irritated to even process her fury correctly. Right when she thought she'd found the perfect string of curse words to aim their way, the Doctor shut the bathroom door, baring her off from the room.
"Hey!" She yelled angrily. "What the hell is going on?"
She stood glowering at the door for a moment, but then she realized that a shower really did sound appealing. It meant she could be alone, anyway, and right now that was sounding lovely indeed. Idiotic Smith boys.
"I'm taking a shower, not because you want me to, but because I want to so I don't have to see your faces!" She yelled.
"She's sometimes irritable in the mornings," she heard the Doctor supply helpfully to Ten.
She dropped the sheet and kicked it childishly towards the door.
"Perhaps I'm irritable because I woke up to Ten randomly staring at me and then my boyfriend told me I stink!" She shot back. She gave her arm a long sniff. "Which I don't!"
There was a pause, and then the Doctor opened the door carefully, peeking his head in.
"Okay, here's the deal. My brother's got to show me a…rash. You know, a rash. A rashy-rash. Do you get what I mean?"
Clara stared at him, deadpanned.
"Are you trying to imply that your brother has a rash on his penis?" She asked.
The Doctor covered his heart with his palm sympathetically. "The poor bloke. I said I'd give it a look, he's too embarrassed to see a doctor. I was just trying to get you from the room so I could save you the emotional turmoil of having to see that." He explained.
Clara set a hand on her hip, peering at him doubtfully.
"Why couldn't you look at his "rash" in the bathroom?" She asked, closing the word in air quotations.
He scoffed, turning to look up at the yellow, flickering light.
"In this lighting? Might as well be night time!" He replied. He leaned forward and kissed her lips, not that hurt that she didn't kiss him back. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Don't tell him I told you about his…rash. He's mortified. Have a good shower!"
She couldn't say she believed the rash story, but she decided it was most likely some birthday present thing. Her birthday was next month and the Doctor was absolutely terrible at surprises. She sighed, crossing quickly to the shower to let the water begin heating up. While it ran and (hopefully) grew warmer, Clara crossed back to the sink and carefully removed her mother's wedding band, dropping it in the glass she always kept it in during bathing.
She stood underneath the shower for a while, letting the hard spray work out whatever weird kinks she'd gotten in her muscles from work (and play). By the time the water ran cold, her fingers were wrinkly and her skin was pink. She steeled herself for a burst of cold air and a quick jog to the room to get a pair of clothes, but when she stepped out of the shower, she saw the Doctor had left her a clean towel, a clean pair of underwear, his favorite shirt that was also Clara's favorite, and a pair of pajama bottoms. Clara was confused and weirded out by his strange behavior, but she couldn't help but smile a bit at that.
She dressed and neglected to brush her hair or put her jewelry back on, fully planning to fall right back into bed as the Doctor knew she'd want to. It was her first day off in two weeks and she was exhausted. She was begrudgingly disappointed when she opened the door and saw the Doctor was no longer there. When she sank down onto the bed, she saw he'd left a note on her pillow. Ran out to pick something up—meet me for lunch around eleven? Central Park. Tara's insisting that Ten get a picture with us while we're here, so I guess wear something nice if you want. We'll be underneath our tree. Love you!
Clara touched the last two words with a smile, already feeling her irritation pandering off. She didn't much fancy the idea of taking any pictures for Tara, who only wanted one to spy on them anyway, but she didn't want to make the Doctor's life harder by refusing to, either. She rested the note on the Doctor's pillow and took an hour-long nap, but when she woke up, she was much groggier than she'd wanted to be. She hardly remembered getting ready when she was finally on the subway, her head leaning tiredly back against the window. She'd remembered pulling her hair back and putting her red dress on, but that was it. Her stomach sank right to her toes when she touched her fingers, realizing with a pang of uneasiness that she'd forgotten to put her mother's wedding ring back on. It was too late to run back and get it, she knew. She wished she would have paid more attention.
She wandered to the trees they'd declared their own a while back, simply because they offered the best shade for picnics, but he wasn't there. She frowned and checked the time on her phone, affirming that it was already ten past the time she was supposed to be there. She sighed and traced the lines in her left palm with her fingernail, her eyes appraising the small grouping of trees. She was about to give up and ring him when she spotted his jacket, puddled at the bottom of one of the trees. She walked over and leaned down, picking it up and bringing it to her face. She inhaled by instinct, somehow already missing the smell of him, and looked around her in confusion. She had just let out a groan of frustration when she felt a hand on her shoulder, causing her to jump slightly by instinct. When she turned around, she was met with the sight of the Doctor, dressed nicely in a suit his brother must have brought for him from home, his face stretched in a nervous smile.
"There you are!" She said. She looked around them, spotting Ten and Rose and someone she didn't know. She lifted her eyebrows in surprise.
"Rose came too?" She asked in surprise. She leaned in closer to the Doctor for her next question. "And who's the old man?"
The Doctor took her hands gently in his, rubbing the backs of them softly, and then he dropped her right one and reached into his pocket. Clara watched him with a slowly warming heart as he pulled the box out, brandishing it sheepishly, his cheeks flushed and his eyes misty.
"I'd like to marry you, Clara." He said. "If you still want to marry me, that is."
It took her a moment. It wasn't until he opened the box, revealing a modest engagement ring that matched the wedding band of her mother's perfectly, that she understood. Ten and Rose were here to be the witnesses. He'd nicked her mother's wedding band from the bathroom while she was in the shower to find the one that matched it best. He'd told her to wear a dress not for Tara, but for them, because he wanted to make this odd day even stranger and more wonderful than anything else.
And then she heard her father say her name, and she turned around automatically in surprise, her eyes falling on the man she hadn't seen since she left the country. He was smiling happily, probably glad that the Doctor had heard his desire to be here all those months ago and acted on it, and Clara made her way into his arms without hesitation. He hugged her tightly and kissed her head.
She leaned back, her heart so much warmer and lighter than it had been in what felt like years.
"When did you get here?" She asked in surprise.
Her dad smiled. "This morning. I had the most charming cab driver on my way from the airport."
Clara laughed and leaned forward to hug her dad one more time.
"Thank you for coming," she whispered against his shoulder. She could tell by the look in his eyes when she pulled away that he would have been nowhere else today, and she loved him for that.
The Doctor was beaming when she walked back to him, truly happy with himself for what he'd managed to pull off. Clara touched the small diamond, her lips quirking up into a grin. It felt like a million years ago since they'd been sitting in her father's living room, giggling about making each other their one and only. But she wanted it just as much as she had then, as she probably always had, as she probably always would.
She hadn't meant to get misty-eyed as well, but she couldn't help but view him through a film of unshed tears. They had come so far together and it was truly beautiful to her to understand that this had only been the prologue. They still had so much further to go.
She tightened her grip on his right hand, listening to the way her heart was beating like a clock in her ears, impatiently counting down each moment until they were one unit in law as well as heart.
"That's all I want." She told him with a smile, and that was enough for him.
He took her hand and walked with her over to the small grouping of trees, with leaves shades of copper, gold, and red, and she thought briefly to her mother and father. Their entire love story had started with an autumn leaf, and nothing had felt more right to her than that hers was being added onto underneath them. The wedding officiant stood in front of them, smiling almost privately at them like he knew a joke they didn't, and Clara still felt half in a dream as he began speaking. He began talking about the importance of marriage and warned them not to take it lightly, but Clara and the Doctor had yet to drop hands or eyes, and if anyone in the vicinity could have doubted their love at all, Clara was unsure how that could be.
When he began speaking the traditional vows, the ones Clara had briefly been certain in the dark time of her youth that she'd never hear—especially not while holding this man's hands—she felt her tears slip over her eyelashes. It was just so wonderful suddenly, to see him underneath the bright, dying colors of autumn, his own eyes tear-filled and his face stretched so wildly with a smile that it was a wonder he wasn't getting a headache from it. She took a step closer to him by instinct, bringing their joined hands almost flush against their chests, her eyes intent on studying his face for every detail she could greedily wrap her hands around and tuck away. Every detail she wanted to keep with her forever. The line of his jaw, the tears clinging to his light eyelashes, the slight stubble on his cheeks, the hopeful green of his eyes trained on hers.
The officiant waited for the Doctor to repeat the vows, but like Clara, he seemed to be in their own little world. The officiant cleared his throat and the Doctor looked up distractedly, breaking his eyes from hers, and Clara followed his gaze, feeling oddly jarred from the sudden lack of eye contact.
"Oh, me?" The Doctor blurted out. He dropped one of her hands and lifted his to his face, pressing it against his cheek in chagrin. "Oh god, I wasn't memorizing that while you were talking, I was staring at her! Did I mess it up? Can we start again? Can we still get married?"
His fretting only made Clara giggle. She heard her father give an amused chuckle from a few spaces away as well. The wedding officiant looked a bit weary as he slowly began repeating the vows, but he did so anyway, and that was enough for Clara. This time, the Doctor kept his eyes on the man as he spoke, his mind absorbing every word. And when he looked back to Clara finally, taking a short step and wedging their hands between each other, he knew them like the back of his hand.
"I, the Doctor—"
"You need to use your legal name." The officiant interrupted.
The Doctor grimaced, looking at the man almost crossly like he'd interrupted something intimate between him and Clara. "Really? Oh, okay." He sighed and turned back to Clara, this time with an impatient air of finality.
"I, John Smith the eleventh, take you Clara Oswald, to be my wife," he began, and Clara could just see him fighting the desire to shoot the man a look that said see why I didn't want to use my full name? His eyes grew soft again despite as he rubbed his thumbs along the backs of her hands, his smile widening as he continued. Clara's heart was in her throat and she was worried that when she went to speak, all that would come out was a happy sob, but she would let herself feel whatever she felt to its full extent on this day. "To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part."
And maybe even after that, she found herself thinking, and it wasn't from any beliefs in any sort of afterlife that the words came from. It was from her belief in their love for each other.
She beamed at him and sniffed, blinking away the tears that had been steadily accumulating in her eyes. He seemed surprised to see her crying tears of joy, but she wasn't sure why that was. He had to have known that he was her purest source of happiness and always had been. The tears rolled down her face and Clara dreaded how she knew she'd look in pictures now—puffy eyed and pink-faced—but there was nothing to be done.
"I, Clara Oswald, take the Doctor, legally named John Smith the eleventh, to be my husband." Clara began. She saw the officiant shoot her an exasperated look, but he didn't stop her, because Clara had known that technically there was nothing wrong with that all. Those words made the Doctor impossibly happy, drawing forth a joyful laugh from his lips as he pulled her body closer to his. They were everything but wrapped around each other and Clara felt that was the way it should have been from the start. "To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, from this day forward until death do us part. And maybe even after that."
The Doctor was bouncing on his feet by the end of her speech, his hands rising impatiently to cup her face. She set her hands on his forearms, equally ready to press her lips to his, only to hear the officiant clear his throat. When they glanced distractedly back at him, she saw Ten holding the rings.
"Oh, forgot that bit!" The Doctor muttered, to himself more than anything. "How did I forget that bit?" He looked pretty downtrodden as he dropped his hands from her face and put a bit of distance between them, just enough to take her left hand in his. Clara admired the gentle way he pushed the rings onto her finger, appreciating his care when she knew he simply wanted to pull her back into his arms. She took his left hand and slid his ring onto his finger, her stomach bubbling with the realization that he was almost her husband. They had been the ones that lasted after all.
"Are you, John Smith the eleventh, free, lawfully, to marry Clara Oswald?" The officiant asked.
Clara saw the Doctor's eyebrows furrow.
"I don't see why I wouldn't be." He replied in confusion.
Clara leaned up. "This is the incest-checker question." She whispered.
"Oh!" He said.
"I need a yes or a no." The officiant pressed patiently.
"Yes!" The Doctor said hurriedly, slightly scandalized. "My god, yes!"
Clara didn't even try to fight back her amused laughter. When the officiant posed the same question at her, she didn't miss a beat.
"Absolutely, yes." She responded.
He smiled. "Well then, John Smith the eleventh, you may now kiss your—"
Clara wasted no time. She took his face gently in her hands and rose up onto her tip toes, pressing her lips to his. His arms wound tightly around her waist and he tugged her closer, his hand weaving into her pulled-up hair and his tongue quick to brush hers. Clara knew somewhere in the back of her mind that her father and Ten were watching them, but she wasn't about to let their first kiss as husband and wife be anything less than what they wanted it to be.
"—Well, okay. I like the initiative." The officiant muttered, probably more to himself than anything.
Clara didn't break the kiss until she realized how into it they were both getting, and then they parted at the same moment, both understanding that it wouldn't be best to end up lying on the grass in Central Park for the consummation of their marriage. Clara took a moment to appreciate the Doctor's flushed cheeks and pink lips, happier than she'd ever imagined she could be. They interlocked hands, his right thumb pressing admiringly to her wedding ring, and then they faced the slightly-taken aback crowd.
"Right! Let's get to signing!" The officiant finally said, giving his head a firm shake.
Rose, Ten, and Dave set up the picnic they'd brought along while Clara and the Doctor sat side by side on the grass, their backs leaning against their favorite tree, the contract resting in their laps. Clara signed it first, realizing that this was one of the last times she'd sign her name as just Clara Oswald, and nudged his side gently when she saw him automatically heading to sign the Doctor. He was used to signing his legal name on most everything else, but Clara guessed on this personal day it was harder to see himself as the name he didn't go by.
When the contract was complete and all the ends were tied, the officiant left, and they were married. Just like that. Clara knew the Doctor had had to do a lot to prepare for this moment before the fact, and she hugged him affectionately afterwards, thanking him for such a wonderful memory.
They all had a picnic right in that same spot. Clara and the Doctor sat side by side, leaning against each other as they ate and caught up with their families. (Or family, as Clara realized with a pang. That was her brother now, too).
Halfway through the picnic, Dave pulled the Doctor to the side. Clara worried at first that he was threatening him, but as she rose casually to grab something from the hamper just for the sake of peeking at the Doctor's expression, she saw that they were both smiling warmly. She didn't know what they'd talked about, but when the conversation came to a close, Dave pulled the Doctor into his arms and gave his back a fatherly pat. The Doctor was grinning when he sat back down beside her and took her hand once again.
It was late before they finally got back to the hotel. Clara was glad they'd decided to spend two weeks underneath an actual roof, because she wouldn't have wanted to spend her wedding night in the backseat of a rental vehicle. They fell down onto the bed once they arrived back, Clara's head resting against the Doctor's chest and his hand on her back.
"I love you." She told him, as if he didn't know it. As if they hadn't proved that today.
She could hear the smile in his voice.
"And I love you." He responded. He leaned down and kissed her temple, his voice shifting to something akin to guilt when he spoke next. "I'm sorry we won't get a honeymoon. I'm sorry we're spending our wedding night in a bed someone's probably died in before."
Clara leaned back and peered up at him in confusion, unsure where those words were coming from. She assumed Ten had said something about it and made him worry that Clara too found it disappointing.
"Doctor, don't be sorry. Our entire life is our honeymoon. There will be nights in hotel beds, nights in no beds at all, and eventually nights in our own. And I'll love each and every one." She kissed him softly, peering seriously into his eyes once she leaned back. "Today was the most beautiful thing you've ever given me."
He said it best when he pressed his lips back to hers. And somewhere, fourteen-year-old Clara was sitting in her bedroom with a full heart yet to be broken, teasing the Doctor about words she couldn't say. He had figured them out all on his own, even if he didn't know it. And he even gave them back to her as he touched her collarbones with his lips.
"I'm going to love you forever Clara, and still forever won't be long enough."
It was the most important vow they'd made all day, and when she finally said the words to him, she knew they both meant them. She knew this was the one thing in life that would remain unbroken. And for once, she didn't doubt a thing.
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL AFTERWORD
by Miles Oswald-Smith Jones
I'm often asked, both in my professional life and private, where this book came from. A week isn't complete until I've gotten posed that question at least once—and usually the tone is anything less than flattering. In all fairness, I suppose it is strange. A celebrity pastry chef taking a year-long leave of absence from a (shamefully) popular television show to write a one-hundred page children's recipe book/fictional adventure. When I first approached my publisher about this book, it began with three words, no plans, and too much emotion. Looking back, she would have been justified to have laughed in my face, and I suppose it's one of life's grandest mysteries that she supported me as patiently as she did. After all, it wasn't the greatest book pitch in the world—(Picture a thirty-seven year old man with a scruffy beard, crow's feet, and unwashed hair standing in the middle of an office. Now add a quivering bottom lip, tear-filled eyes, and a general pathetic aura of absolute hopelessness. Do you feel like drinking whisky until you black out yet? If not, add the defined cheekbones from refusing meals, the shifty eyes of a potential madman, and listen as he speaks. He has nothing more to say than three words, and these are three words that he has been grinding his teeth over for two months. "My parents died," he says. Yes, okay, but what does that have to do with a book? Here, after being asked that question, he just cries on the fifty-year-old woman's shoulder (my eternal thanks to you always, Julie!). And that's it. That's the pitch).
As you can see, it was soppy from the get go. I could say that it was from the grace of some sort of god that I managed to take what I was feeling and turn it into this book, but a few of my critics have informed me quite lovingly that perhaps these feelings would have been better left fermenting inside of me (thanks, Daily Mail!). But the clock has struck and the book is here and I'm just a bit too tired of floundering when people ask me what in the world this is all about, so here is my answer, and if I achieve anything in my life, I want it to be that people understand whatever words are about to come.
There is always a world inside of a family- or maybe, rather, a family creates its own world and lives inside of it. If this is only true for truly exceptional families, I have been blessed beyond words to have understood it. The world that my family lived in was a world of adoration and chaos, and as I reflected on my childhood during that year after I lost my parents, I realized that it was those two elements that made up the recipe of our lives together. It was that careful, tender mix of soft hearts and wild spirits that inspired me in all that I do. I can see that clearly now. I can see that the world my family lived in, the world that I lived in, was truly one that can never be matched. It is one that I will never return to. It is one that I will probably never cease to miss.
The short stories that follow each recipe were written for children, and thus I never planned on them making too much logical sense. I've been accused of being a half-rate pseudoscience fiction writer posing as a children's author, something that made me laugh when I first read it, because this book has never been even the slightest bit fictional. I wanted to capture the world of a family, the alien-safety of it, and that's what I set out to do. It is for children because I believe, sadly, that it is only the children and those who were loved like I were that can still see those microcosms.
This is the place my publisher gently suggested that I stop rambling and get to the point, and so I guess I start with the beginning of the book. It was not to patronize children's baking abilities that I began this book with the most basic bittersweet chocolate soufflé recipe out there. It was not by accident that this recipe is the only soufflé recipe in the entire book, in any book I have or will publish again. The heart of this book can be found right at the start; the heart of this book is my mum's soufflé recipe, and she has always had my heart.
I'm told that the first words my mother ever said to me were "oh, be careful out here, love". To add some context to this, the first thing I did upon leaving my mother's womb was scratch myself in the face with my fingernail in my mad attempt to block out the lights. As you can see, I've been suave my entire life.
I think about those words often, even though I don't remember a word of them. I suppose it's the writer in me that appreciates the way those words ended up echoing the style with which my mother cared for me, for my siblings. Likewise, I was told by my mother that my father was crying too heavily to say anything at all, and if that doesn't explain the love with which my father parented me I don't know what could.
I often prayed in those last days of her life that she'd somehow regain her ability to speak, even if only for a few minutes. I could have done with a few last words from her. I could have done with those last words being an echo of the first she'd ever given me, because ever since my parents have passed, the world has seemed so vast, so dangerous. I don't believe that anyone realizes that they're still living in the worlds their parents' created for them until their parents have died and they're suddenly on the outside. My parents left and they took a version of me with them that I will never know again, a version of Miles that was happy in a way I'll never be again. I've known happiness once more since they've gone and I will continue to know it, but never in the pure way they first showed it to me. They loved me without reserve, without expectations, without judgment. A few things stick out to me when I think of my childhood, a few snapshots in time, and it breaks my heart sometimes to know that my mother died without them warming her heart the way they always warm mine. My memories of my parents were always what got me through every difficult thing in my life, and it was their foundation that enabled me to be true to myself without fear. I always knew that no matter what other people thought of me, of what I did for a living, of who I loved, I could come home and my parents would love me like I mattered to the world.
I always have the urge when speaking of my parents to list off their qualities, like I'm somehow trying to validate their worth and make everyone see them as I did. But it only took me a few times of saying my father was brave, funny, and loving, and that my mother was strong, quick, and affectionate to realize that these are all words that everyone shares. They are not unique to my parents in any way. What is unique to them are their actions, the memories they've left behind. It's funny, because it took watching my own mother lose hers to understand the true worth of a beautiful memory. It took watching my father's face crumble the first time my mother forgot that they were married to show me what truly mattered. And so now when I speak of my parents, I don't list off generic adjectives, because they have always been more than that. Now, when given the opportunity to describe my parents, I share this:
When I was five-years-old, I stepped into the wardrobe in my parents' bedroom to retrieve the ball I'd thrown in by accident, and I found myself locked in. To this day my elder brother swears he didn't shut the door, but let the record show that I didn't shut it either. I was afraid of a lot of things as a child, the dark being one of the main ones, and it was traumatizing for me to say the least. I sat on the floor and wrapped my arms around my knees, my chest tight with fear, and I remember thinking with complete confidence that my mum would find me. I shut my eyes and I breathed shallowly, trying not to think about the things all kids believe live in the shadows, and then I heard my mum's footsteps. I only had to stretch out my legs in front of me and she was there, opening the doors quickly, her eyes wide with concern. I clung to her tightly when she picked me up, shaken up and more frightened of the dark than I had been before, and she kissed my head and apologised for not finding me sooner, her own voice choked. I spent most of the day with her and hardly ate that night at dinner, dreading when the sun would sink behind the clouds and there'd be darkness everywhere. My dad held my hand and walked me to my bedroom that night, and after he tucked me in, he told me that he wasn't going to tell me that there was nothing to be afraid of, because the dark was frightening. He said that he was frightened of it too, and my mum was a bit as well, but she'd never admit it (I remember being particularly amazed to hear that). He held me close and told me something I never did forget. He said that there will always be things to be afraid of and that the trick isn't getting over that fear completely. He said the trick was accepting the fear and then protecting yourself against it. And then my mum came in to kiss me goodnight, but they didn't leave after that like they normally did. They turned the lights off, and sometime while I'd been playing halfheartedly with my little sister, they'd covered my entire ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars, the kind that glow brightly for hours and hours. My entire ceiling was suddenly alight with a type of light that was only present when there was no light at all. And to a child, that was the most wonderful thing in the world. To think that my parents had found a way to put the light inside the darkness. They lay beside me that night until I fell asleep, my mother stroking my hair and my father humming a tune to an old country-western song that had weaved its way into our family's fabric, and I don't know if I've ever felt so safe as I felt then. That was my parents.
I won't say that I'm all right. I'm not ashamed to admit to whoever might have somehow ended up reading this that I was truly miserable when they died. And, oddly, in the beginning it wasn't so much the fact that I'd lost my parents that made me so sick. I had prepared for losing my mother. I had begun saying goodbye slowly to her, even if doing so hurt so terribly I sometimes couldn't even stand to be alive. I had subconsciously accepted that my father would be leaving me as well. All of my siblings knew it too. Dad wouldn't be living too long without Mum, that was what we whispered tearfully to each other whenever we had our meetings during Mum's last few years. We knew when we found out she was dying that it was either none or both, and that was what made it even harder. But we loved him too much to try and force him to stay. He was worse than miserable back then. He was dying right alongside her, but whether by purpose or chance, I don't even know if he knew. My heart will forever go out to my eldest sister who had to carry the hardest burden. She had to be the one to make the split-second choice to let him go too, knowing the emotional repercussions, and it's something that lives inside of her every single day. All of that was difficult on the best days and impossible on the worst, but what was hardest of all was thinking of my mum's last few days. She died only two days after being admitted to hospital, and it was an awful death. Thankfully she was unconscious for most of those days; something that I think was a blessing. But I often think of her watching our father die. I was the one who found him first and I will never forget what it looked like. Her hand was in his blood-soaked hair and her lips were moving, as if to form words, only that was more than she could do in her final days. I always thought privately that she stayed conscious only for him in her last month alive, and after he died practically in her lap, she never really woke up again.
We all have things we'll never escape. Mine just happens to be a memory that didn't even belong to me, a memory that didn't even belong to the woman who would have had it, because she'd lost the ability to own any memories at all. I used to see the years of their life together lined up in my head, imaging the things she might have saw in her mind when she heard his voice or saw his face: his hand in hers as children, his arm around her shoulder as teenagers, their fingers interlocked as spouses, and then I would imagine what she felt when she saw him dying, knowing she couldn't help him. Knowing she couldn't even tell him she loved him to comfort him as he took his last breath. And as much as I wish it wasn't true, as much as I'd love to believe the neurologist who told me she couldn't have realized what was happening, I saw her hand in his hair. I saw her stroking his face. He watched her die and she watched him too, and Poppy always said that love was watching someone die. If it were the greatest test of all, they passed. They passed.
Life can sometimes seem a meaningless pool of empty love stories that diminish alongside our youth, but I have seen differently. Every adventure between my two main characters in this book is true in detail and in heart. Oswin and Smith lived and they loved and they died and they were my parents. Nothing has been changed but the names, and to some of my criticisers' chagrin, nothing has been sugar-coated. They grew up together, they cried together, they travelled together, had children together, made a life together, and then they died together. But the magic has always been in the way they did all of these things in love.
When I first started this book, I thought I wanted to tell the world about how she died and left me, about how my dad died and left me too, far too early and far too cruelly. But I've come to realise that this isn't a ghost story at all. It's a love story. And if you read these short stories while understanding this, you will understand my parents. And they were two people you don't want to miss out on.
To Lottie, Poppy, Ellabell, and Bristol—you'll forever be the only ones who know the world I'm from. Thank you for making sure that world could breathe here between these pages. To Oscar—I hope that I love you the way my parents loved one another, because you deserve nothing less. And always and forever, to my daughter Clara Jones: "As sure as night is dark and day is light, I keep you on my mind both day and night. And happiness I've known proves that it's right. Because you're mine, I walk the line."
Be careful out here, love.