Her voice and a kiss on the forehead woke me from a dazed slumber and made me realize that I had actually dozed off in the armchair, lulled by the warmth of the fire.
I shook myself, a little embarrassed, and smiled up at her wearily. "Oh, hello, Professor. How was your day?"
"Long, mainly", she replied and loosed the green paisley scarf she had tied around her hair, stuffing it carelessly into the pocket of her rain-spattered coat. "And cold!" She unbuttoned the coat and had already shrugged out of one sleeve when she stopped in her tracks and took a closer look first at me, then at the floor beside me. Count on her to find the fault in the picture in under a minute.
"Anything wrong?" she asked, nodding at the crutches lying next to my chair.
"The leg's been a bitch ever since I got out of bed this morning", I replied, massaging it gently. "It's one of these days again." From time to time, it gave me hell when the weather changed, often so much that I temporarily preferred to go without the prosthetic leg and put up with the limitations associated with the crutches.
"No wonder, what with that dreadful weather. You know what, I'll fix us a bite to eat, we'll eat in peace and quiet and then simply turn in early. How does that sound?"
"Absolutely perfect", I said.
I meant it, but couldn't help observing with a certain sarcasm how dramatically my concept of perfection had altered since I had more or less got used to a life minus one leg.
Evelyn left the room to change out of her brown wool suit, and I leaned back, gazing into the fire, thinking of nothing at all, just watching the flames flicker and twist.
The shrill ringing of the telephone disturbed the peace, startling me.
Had I been alone, I'd have chosen to simply ignore it, but I heard Evelyn hurry into the hall to pick up the receiver.
"Hello? Who's this?" … "Oh, it's you. Sorry, I didn't …" … "What? Oh dear. How awful." … "Yes, of course. Be there in a minute." … "I should think Mick will take care of that.." … "No, he certainly won't mind. We'll be right over."
There went my prospect of a quiet restful evening and of calming down my troublesome leg, I felt.
Evelyn came in, looking worried, and proved me right. "Bad news, I'm afraid. That was Emma Schell on the phone. Conrad has fallen very ill suddenly, appendicitis or something. Emma's really beside herself, and Joseph is away on business. I've promised to drive them to the hospital because Emma's got no licence. And, uh … do you think you can come along and look after Henry a bit? It would be awkward if we had to take him with us."
"Sure." I pushed myself up from the chair, suppressing a sigh, and gathered up the crutches. "Just let me get the leg and put on a coat. Hope poor Conrad's not too bad."
I was somewhat surprised that Emma Schell had phoned us for help. While a strong friendship had evolved between Joseph and myself and we saw each other regularly for a drink or two and a good long chat, Emma had always remained distant and a trifle wary, talking little, just watching me with her dark disturbing eyes. I had never had the impression that she particularly liked or trusted me, and she hadn't seemed to take a great liking to Evelyn either on the few occasions they had met. But then, we were living so close to their home that ringing us was the most sensible option short of calling an ambulance.
We were on our way within less than five minutes and found Emma waiting by the door, on the verge of tears.
She led us into Conrad's room. He was in bed, doubled over under the covers, his face contorted pitifully. He hardly noticed me when I touched his cheek, there was only the faintest flicker of recognition in his eyes.
I stepped aside with a lump in my throat, sitting down on the chair in the opposite corner of the room to take the weight off my smarting leg, and watched Emma bend over her son, patting his cheek to rouse him from apathy.
"Conrad, I'm sorry, but you'll have to get up", she told him in an authoritative tone that couldn't entirely mask her fears. "We have to take you to the hospital. Evelyn's driving us, but you'll have to walk to the car. Can you do that?"
He gave a tiny brave nod and tried to obey, but failed. "No, Mummy", he said in a miserable, small voice. "I can't. It hurts too much."
"Conrad, please … give it another try, will you? You're way too big and too heavy for us to carry you."
The boy gritted his teeth and struggled once more to sit up. "I can't", he wailed with tears in his eyes. "Please, Mum …"
Emma shook her head desperately. "Conrad, I can't help it, you have to …"
"Let me do that", I said on an impulse and rose clumsily, wincing as my leg flared up.
Emma pierced me with one of her questioning looks. I knew what she was thinking.
I bit back a harsh answer and just gave her a reassuring nod. Yes, I might be crippled, but carrying a skinny nine-year-old down the corridor still wasn't out of my scope.
"Come on, mate. Let's get you out of here." I picked Conrad up carefully, and he held on to my neck weakly, uttering a small tormented whimper.
His limp body and our slow, halting progress, hampered by my useless leg, gave me an eerie sense of déjà vu, a vivid recollection of another boy, not much bigger than Conrad, slack in my arms, pained and frightened.
I tried not to think of Richard and what had happened when I had wanted to carry him to safety, tried to concentrate on the task at hand, but I couldn't shake a subliminal feeling of danger that made my pulse quicken and my senses go on alert.
Evelyn had opened the front door, and the cold bracing night air rushed in, dispelling the memory, bringing reality back. There was nothing to fear. This time I would accomplish my mission. It was only through the corridor and into the street, not a mile through enemy-infested jungle.
With Evelyn's help, I got Conrad into the back seat of the car and covered him with a blanket.
Emma had been at my heels, and was already in the passenger seat, about to close the door, when I realized I hadn't seen Henry anywhere. A string of questions suddenly raced through my mind, and I shouted, "Emma, wait a minute … where's the little one?"
"Asleep, in my bed. I didn't want him in the kids' bedroom with Conrad so poorly."
"Fine, but what … oh well …" My words trailed off unheard as she slammed the door shut mid-sentence and gestured for Evelyn to get going, which she did, pulling away from the curb at considerable speed.
I stood and watched the car turn the corner, supporting myself heavily on a fencepost. My leg was ablaze, and I cursed myself for not having thought to bring the cane.
Trying to put as little weight on the leg as I could, I slowly made my way back inside to look for my young charge, hesitating in the corridor. It didn't feel right to enter Joseph and Emma's bedroom, intruding on their privacy, but if I was to play the babysitter tonight, I needed to check on Henry and make sure he was alright.
Quietly, I pushed open the door that Emma had left ajar and was surprised to find the boy not in bed but half inside the wardrobe, fully engrossed in pulling down his father's ties from their rack one by one. I thanked my lucky stars that he had not strangled himself with one of them or got himself trapped inside the large cupboard.
"Hey, Henry", I said in a low voice, leaning against the door frame to take the strain off my leg. "Taking stock of Daddy's wardrobe?"
He whirled round to face me, somewhat puzzled at first, then, as he recognized me, broke into a beguiling smile. "Oooh, Mick!" he cried out and left his colourful assortment of ties to throw his arms around my good leg, as he had taken to doing every time he saw me.
Holding on to the doorjamb with one hand to keep my balance, I hugged him tightly to my side and ruffled his hair, marveling at how the kid, caught up in his own small world, managed to stay completely unaware of his brother's ordeal and his mother's sorrow. I decided not to tell him that Mummy wasn't home unless he asked. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
I let him run free around the place for a while to keep him occupied, sincerely hoping he wouldn't fall and hurt himself. Of course, he was quick to realize that Mummy and Daddy and Conrad weren't there and wanted to know where they had gone off to, but at least he didn't get tearful.
"Daddy's making a little journey, and Conrad got sick, so Mummy and Evelyn have gone to take him to the doctor's", I explained. "They'll be back very soon. Until then, it's just the two of us. Shall we play a bit?"
He nodded eagerly, not seeming all too bothered by his family's absence. I let him drag me into the boys' bedroom, where he proudly showed me his toys, and helped him carry two boxes of building blocks into the living room.
He plonked himself down in the middle of the carpet, emptied out the first box with a tremendous crash and said, "Come, Mick. Sit here."
"Good heavens, Henry … don't make an old crippled man sit on the floor. I'll never get up again if I do." I went searching for something suitable to perch on and found a low footstool in the kitchen. The position was still rather uncomfortable, but if I stretched out my leg to one side, it was halfway bearable as long as Henry didn't bump into it, which happened a couple of times in the heat of the moment.
Apart from that, I found it quite enjoyable to engage in some simple child's play.
The last time I had done something similar must have been back in Missouri with my sisters, almost twenty years ago.
Henry and I spent well over an hour constructing a whole little village from his colorful bricks. I was surprised just how much time had passed when I glanced at my watch. It was half past eight already, and I wondered if I ought to put him to bed soon.
Henry had other priorities. He crowned his last house with a red triangular block and declared matter-of-factly that he was hungry.
God. I hadn't even thought of that. The trouble with my leg and the agitation about Conrad's illness had left me without much appetite myself, and Emma had been too preoccupied with her eldest to give me any clear instructions. A fine babysitter, I was.
"Sure you are", I said, trying to hide my embarrassment. "Let me see what we've got, and we'll have a nice little boys' dinner before I tuck you into bed."
I went into the kitchen, again feeling like an unbidden intruder when I inspected various cupboards and the refrigerator to find all I needed to make some sandwiches.
Henry happily ate his supper and obediently went to put on his pajamas and brush his teeth, but when I wanted him to crawl into bed, he protested and remained sitting on the edge of the mattress. "I want Mummy now", he said dolefully and shed some tears after all.
"Mummy's still with Conrad", I said, sat down next to him and put my arm around his shoulder. "Don't you cry, pal. She'll be home soon. She'll be there when you wake up."
Thus reassured, he finally lay down, pulled the covers up to his chin and squeezed his eyes shut.
I didn't leave my post, not wanting him to be alone until he had gone to sleep. I waited until he was breathing very regularly, then I rose and sneaked out quietly to return into the living room and rest my aching leg at long last.
I had just taken off my shoes and stretched out on the sofa with a book from the Schells' well-equipped bookcase when the door opened.
"Mick?" a small voice said just behind my head.
I jerked around. Henry was peering up at me, somewhat accusingly, a worn teddy bear dangling upside down from his hand.
"Yes?" I swung my legs from the sofa and sat up to face him.
"I can't sleep."
"Just give it another try, mate. It's late enough."
"But Conrad's not there. I can't sleep when I'm alone."
"You're not alone. I'll come and stay right there with you until your mummy comes back."
He seemed to ponder my answer, cocked his head to one side in that cute way he had and inquired with a melting look from huge blue eyes, "Can't I stay here with you? Please."
I didn't think Emma would approve, but she wasn't here after all, and the last I wanted was to be stuck with a distraught little boy, so I said firmly, "Yes. If you promise you'll be good and sleep."
He assumed his thinking pose again and nodded slowly. "Okay. But you have to sing me a song."
With that, he clambered onto the sofa beside me.
"Me? Sing? Give me a break, mate. I'll read you a story, okay?"
"Two stories?" I offered, fished for the folded blanket draped over the side of the next armchair and wrapped it around him. "Or as many as it takes until you're asleep?"
"No, you must sing!"
"I haven't been singing for God knows how long, Henry", I muttered, pulling a plush ottoman closer to put up my leg.
Unperturbed, he insisted, "Sing!"
"Okay, okay, I'll sing. In a minute." I raised my palms in surrender and tried to think of something other than the unsuitably bloody murder ballads and the raucous sea shanties that came to my mind. Dirty drinking songs wouldn't do either, I guessed. Heavens, there had to be some song I knew with nice, harmless lyrics and a tune that wouldn't be beyond my meagre talent.
Henry squealed eagerly "Sing, Mick! Sing!" while I kept racking my brains in vain.
And suddenly, there it was, an image from way down the years.
Another man, another child. The roles reversed.
My father's familiar figure at my bedside, a warm rough voice, a hand smoothing an unruly lock of hair from my face, and the bittersweet tune that lulled me into sleep every night.
I cleared my throat and began to sing, if you can call it that, in a low tentative voice.
"Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward, the sailors cry
Carry the lad that's born to be king
Over the sea to Skye …"
Henry, who had lain down with his head in my lap, his teddy bear in the crook of his arm, smiled and pressed his face into my sweater while I gently stroked the soft skin at the back of his neck.
Before I had finished the second verse, he had slipped away into the realm of dreams with my stomach for a pillow. A small foot had slid out from under the blanket, and I tucked it back in so he wouldn't get cold.
I looked down on him with a feeling of tenderness and love and something else, a twinge of longing deep within.
There was something infinitely endearing about the sleeping child. Warm affection flooded me and made me want to cuddle him to bits.
I resisted the urge but put my arms around him loosely, immensely touched by his peaceful face and the trustful way he had accepted that his mother was away and I was looking after him for the time being.
Once more the unbidden question rose in my mind.
Would I ever enjoy this closeness with a child of my own flesh and blood?
Maybe it was just a whim of the moment that I felt I wanted to be a father after all. There were plenty of arguments against it – our age, Evelyn's love for her profession and the fact that she still was the main breadwinner, her dislike of all things housewifey. And my disability with all its ramifications. I had no idea how my health was going to shape up in five, or ten, or fifteen years. What if my current bad spell was not just a short passing episode but the beginning of a downward spiral, my mobility decreasing rapidly as I grew older? What if I'd be unable to do much more than sing lullabies and read bedtime stories, unable to do as much as carry a fussy baby around or to take a walk with an older child?
I certainly didn't want my children to be constantly required to make allowance for their father's physical limitations.
Things were certainly better the way they were.
I glanced down at Henry's flushed cheeks and tousled hair and suddenly realized with a fierce stab of regret that I might well have a family now if things had taken a different turn.
The child Rosie had not wanted to have would be fourteen years old now – well advanced on the way to adulthood, getting into fierce arguments with us about outfits or school grades or pocket money, maybe experiencing first love.
At the time, I had been devastated to hear that she had gone to see an abortionist, but as my grief subsided, I had told myself there was still plenty of time, that I would have a family one fine day.
I would surely have started a family with Nell, if I had not made the fatal decision to leave her for half a year, long enough for things to change so terribly and irreversibly.
I had been afraid I might get her pregnant the one and only time we had made love, but perhaps this momentary calamity would have saved us the tragic end our romance had come to.
I would have returned to France quickly and stayed there with her. We would have got married. I would not have gone to war.
I would still have both legs, and a family, too, I thought ruefully.
Henry chose this very moment to stir and mumble something dozy that sounded like "Daddy?"
My throat constricted for a second before I whispered, "It's only me, Henry. Go back to sleep."
He blinked at me drowsily, closed his eyes and murmured, "Sing."
I smiled wryly and intoned the Skye Boat Song once more, focusing on the words and the melody and the little figure in my arms instead of old sorrow and regrets.
It was after ten o'clock when I parked the car at the curb outside the Schells' house and let myself in with the key Emma had given me.
She had wanted me to leave her alone at the hospital, had said she wanted to wait until Conrad's appendectomy was done, to see for herself that things had gone according to plan and he was alright.
I had reluctantly agreed and promised to be back around midnight. It had not felt right to abandon her in the dreary hospital corridor, but she had insisted that I go, so I had left. Maybe she was one of those people who preferred to deal with their worries on their own, to shed their tears without anyone looking on, and found my presence more disturbing than reassuring.
I tiptoed down the hall as not to wake Henry who was hopefully asleep by now and permitted Mick to get some much-needed rest. He had looked rather exhausted already when I came home, and he had been walking very badly when we set out to help Emma in her misery.
The living-room door was not quite closed. A thin strip of light was visible through the crack, and I was surprised when thought I heard a low voice sing. Mick didn't listen to music a lot any more, and I certainly didn't think he'd have switched on the radio in a foreign home.
Maybe I had just imagined it.
I opened the door without making a sound and remained frozen in the doorway, utterly moved by what I saw, and heard.
I had not been mistaken.
There was Mick on the sofa, unaware of my presence, bathed in the golden glow of a table lamp. His pose was weary, slumped into the thick cushions, his bad leg resting on an overstuffed footstool. He was looking older than his years tonight, his face worn and marked by the pain that had plagued him all day, his hair messy and curling wildly over the collar of his heavy blue knit sweater and around the ears, but he appeared more relaxed than before, and all focused on Henry.
Henry who lay cradled safely in his arms, snuggled against his chest, sleeping while Mick softly sang to him in a slightly hoarse voice, a simple melody that gently rose and fell and touched me deeply, as much as the sight of the two of them did.
It was unusual for me to feel this way. I was not by nature a motherly person. There were some kids I liked quite well, there were some I utterly detested, but usually I didn't much care about children one way or the other.
I had never been one of those girls who pounced on every toddler they encountered and endlessly fussed about them, and I had never felt a great desire to have children myself.
Mick had never expressed any wish to start a family either. We had never even discussed the subject, and I, for my part, didn't feel any need to.
Yet the peaceful image Mick and Henry presented struck a hidden chord within me, and suddenly there was a picture in my mind of Mick bending over his own sleeping baby with this sweet affectionate expression that softened his features now.
Where on earth had that vision come from?
I shook it off and stepped into the room, whispering a greeting when there was a pause in Mick's song.
He looked up at me and smiled wordlessly in response.
The second I sat down next to him and kicked off my pinching shoes, I realized how exhausted I was. I didn't even want to talk.
"How's Conrad?" Mick asked quietly after a little while, a hint of worry in his eyes.
"He was still in the OR when I left, but they said it's a routine procedure and he'll be fine in no time."
"Good. Thank God." He relaxed perceptibly.
I moved closer to him, drew up my legs and rested my head against his, watching him tug the blanket that had slipped off Henry's shoulder back into place with so much care that I felt once more strangely emotional.
Cautiously, I extended a hand and ran it gently down the boy's back. He shifted a bit and I withdrew, afraid I had woken him up, but he kept sleeping soundly.
I ventured to stroke his cheek, marveling at the softness of his skin, his cute little nose and his lovely long eyelashes, and found myself wondering if a child of ours would have Mick's green-golden eyes or my red hair or the strong temper both of us had.
This time, I didn't push the thought away.