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The bombs no longer bothered her. When she thought about it, the fact amazed her. She'd gone through all those nights, hearing them falling - the sirens, the fires - peeking past the blackout curtains to see people returning home after the all-clear. The flat was in darkness because her mother had warned her so often, so emphatically, Hilary wouldn't have dared to create even the faintest crack of light, something that might inadvertently direct some bomb-carrying German airplane right to the flat off Sloane Square. Nights she'd spent in the shelter, listening to the silence, to people settling down to wait it out in the depths of the tube station, the children being put to sleep while the noises above might signify the end of the home they'd left when the sirens had sounded.
It was strange, emerging after the all-clear, to stand for a moment in the street, breathing in the fuming air - there was always fire somewhere and the sound of more sirens, ambulances - feeling exhilaration at being still alive. She'd got through another night of a war that was never going to end. It seemed it had been going on all her life and would probably continue long after her life was ended. Perhaps it was this feeling that it would never end that removed whatever fear of the bombs she'd possessed. With the fear gone, it seemed rather pointless to make the journey to the tube station every time the alert sounded. So she'd taken to remaining in the darkened flat, nibbling crackers and a bit of cheese, sitting examining the dimensions of the darkness, waiting for the all-clear to sound so that she might finally complete her schoolwork and leave a little something out for her mother to eat when she finally came in from her job at the War Office.
Sometimes her mother stayed out round the clock. Upon returning from school, Hilary would find the small meal she'd left standing untouched on the table. She'd eat it herself while she studied and then, later, prepare another meal for her mother. She no longer became panicky when her mother's work kept her away day and night. Initially, Hilary had worried herself into a state, picturing her mother buried beneath a heap of rubble or trapped in some burning building; all sorts of things. But time was changing her feelings about so many things that now she no longer feared her mother had died if she arrived home to find yet another untouched plate of food. It simply meant that they were keeping Mother busier than ever.
Occasionally, on some rare siren-free evening, Hilary would sit in the lounge and look at the room, trying to imagine how the flat might look without blackout curtains, with fresh flowers on the table and all of them home again living some sort of ordinary life. Colin would be back from the Midlands, where he'd been sent for the duration. The children had been evacuated, but Hilary had refused to go. Colin had gone off on the train in tears, a tag pinned to his lapel, and a small suitcase containing his copies of Jemima Puddle Duck and Samuel Whiskers, his special cup, the photograph of the family. Clutching the bag fiercely, he'd sobbed while the porter had put a tag on his second bag and loaded it onto the luggage carrier. Colin went off sobbing, "I don't want to go. Oh, please, I'll be good. I don't want to go." Sobbing out of sight, his small white face at the window.
All of them home: Colin back, and Father, too, from wherever he was. Somewhere in the North Atlantic or the North Sea. Somewhere. It had been close to a year since they'd had any word. She found she couldn't remember what he looked like, and this inability to fix his image in her mind made her fearful he was dead, gone down with his ship, in the Atlantic, or the North Sea. Anywhere.
All of them. Colin, and Father and Mother home finally from her never-discussed job with the War Office. The family a family again. They mightn't be recognizable to one another should they find themselves reunited. It was an alarming thought, as much so as her consistent inability to fix her father's image in her mind.
Father's parents in America wrote worried letters and sent packages that took months to arrive, packages containing hand-knit cardigans for Colin and herself, foodstuffs gone bad in transit, letters filled with old news, old worries. Mother's mother sent air letters from Toronto, endlessly restating her optimistic opinion that the war would soon end. Hilary read all the letters. They were addressed to the family, so she read them, then placed them beside the plates of food she left for her mother.
Those evenings when Mother was home, she was so exhausted she went directly to bed, to rest up before returning early the next morning to her job. While she slept Hilary rinsed out her mother's stockings, her underclothes, laundered the white shirts Mother wore with her uniform, polished her mother's shoes. All that done, Hilary would drink a cup of tea, resume studying for her A levels, and silently oversee her mother's sleep, remaining awake in order not to miss any moment of this time.
She didn't feel seventeen. Fifty or sixty, but not seventeen. It seemed as if she'd lived out her entire lifetime in the past five years. She'd been twelve when Colin had left. Mother had been unable to dissuade Hilary from staying. Hilary had made up her mind and her mother knew how impossible it was to move her once she'd decided on something. So Mother had said, "Very well. You'll stay, then," with one of those telling sighs filled with impatient resignation. She'd had too little time in which to illustrate how foolhardy and dangerous all this was. Twelve. She'd been a little girl. And the majority of her friends had been evacuated, glad of the chance to go, the bombs terrifying to them; the daily devastation terrifying to them. Hilary had walked back and forth to school distantly viewing the smoking remains of what had, the day before or the week before, been homes where people had lived; quite convinced she'd one night emerge from the tube station to find nothing left of the Sloane Square flat. But five years later it still hadn't happened and she now no longer believed it would.
She queued for rations, purchased whatever foodstuffs were available, and took care not to waste anything. As often as could be managed, she took the train up to see Colin, who seemed to have aged as considerably as she herself had. He was no longer a little boy. At almost eleven, he'd grown quite tall, become very cheerful in these years away. He was so altered she found little recognizable about him, although Mother seemed to accept these changes as a matter of course - on those occasions when she could manage the time to make the trip with Hilary - and appeared quite comfortable with the new Colin, who prattled on about his free-time occupations - trainspotting, model-making, bird-watching, experiments with his chemical set - and no longer cried about being away from his home.
She was seventeen, almost eighteen. It was shocking to look at herself in the mirror and find herself so altered, too. She'd stopped growing, finally. Shoeless, she stood taller than Mother, a fact that seemed to amuse Alison, who, in her hours at home, was fond of saying, "I do hope you've come to the end of it now, Hilary. I'd hate to see you bashing your head on the ceilings." But she said it with such kindness and good humor that Hilary was never made to feel embarrassed about the height she'd attained. A certain amount of teasing did take place, moments of welcome lightness during her school hours. She joined in the laughter, not minding. After all, she wasn't that tall. Five feet seven inches wasn't all that exceptional. No, she didn't mind the teasing, the jokes. What she minded very much was the hunger, feeling most of the time that if she could just have one really super Sunday roast with all the trimmings, she might satisfy her appetite. Lamb, say. With fresh mint sauce and roast potatoes, roast parsnips, too, and carrots, perhaps. Or a roast chicken with stuffing and white sauce, sprouts and roast potatoes. She had elaborate daydreams about lavish spreads of food on brilliant white tablecloths, dazzling silver, china, crystal goblets of white wine: the sort of Sunday dinner they'd sometimes had with her mother's mother before she'd gone to live in Canada. And sometimes with Father's parents before they'd gone away to America. They'd sold up and gone away in '36 after one of Grandfather's visits to Germany, from which he'd returned to declare, "I don't care the least bit for what's going on over there. Burning books. Barbaric! It's bound to lead to war and I've had my fill of war." So they'd sold up and emigrated to America, to a farm in Connecticut, with a tenant who worked the land, and a house they promised could readily accommodate the entire family should they one day come to their senses and get out of England before the whole bloody country gave up the ghost or was overrun by those demented brown-shirted Germans.
She tried to picture a farm in Connecticut, seeing America as one vast open space dotted here and there with cities; a place where one could throw out one's arms and never collide with a wall or a door and never have to see a pile of smoldering rubble that had, the day before, been the house next door. Perhaps, if the war ever ended, they'd all go to visit Elsa in Connecticut. She liked her much better than she liked Mother's mother. Mrs. Horton was altogether too stiffly rigid, too formal and given to issuing orders, to appeal overmuch to Hilary. Elsa was gay and good-natured and given to the giving of whimsical gifts, not to mention the knitting of all those cardies and jumpers. She always had some piece of work or another in her lap.
Hilary liked the idea of one day visiting them, although she found she couldn't remember their faces, either.
Before the start of the war, there'd always been a good deal of traffic in and out of the house in Sloane Square. In the top flat had lived a doctor and his wife. They'd moved up to Scotland in '41, closing the flat, promising to return at the war's end. Then, the second-floor flat was theirs, of course. Below, on the ground floor, was Madame de Martin, who was getting on in years and rarely went out and who, like Hilary, remained at home during the raids. Madame had, she once told Hilary, been the wife of a French diplomat who'd died in the late twenties in some never-named country from which Madame had been obliged to return with their daughter. The daughter chose to remain in France while Madame, for reasons known only to herself, took up permanent residence in England and even went so far as to surrender her French citizenship and become British.
Hilary often knocked at her door, offering to run errands but really just wanting to satisfy herself that Madame's silences were not indicative of illness or some incapacity. She liked Madame, liked listening to her talk, liked looking at her. And Madame seemed to welcome Hilary's visits.
The last flat, in what had been the servants' quarters in another era, when the house had been a private home, was occupied by the Whiting-Blakes. He was a solicitor by day and an air-raid warden by night. She was a nurse at St. Stephen's and rarely at home. Hilary was mildly intrigued by Mrs. Whiting-Blake. She was ample of bosom, possessed of a pair of very capable-looking hands, and seemed to have a fine gift of laughter. She appeared altogether a very happy woman. Her husband came across as overzealous. He went about the neighborhood with his badge and his torch, an infuriating nitpicker who was forever irritating people already living on the sharp end of their nerve, going on and on about imagined cracks of light here and there.
As the war continued there was so little traffic in and out of the house that Hilary had become acutely aware of every little bit there was. In particular, she was curious about the young man who'd come to stay with Madame several weeks earlier. She'd seen him letting himself into Madame's flat, a tall, dark-haired, dark-skinned young man who'd glanced up the stairs at her - a flash of startlingly green eyes - then silently, almost stealthily disappeared inside.
She imagined all sorts of things. He was a spy. Madame was a spy. The idea of Madame's being a spy making her laugh. Madame was an aging woman who still retained a considerable measure of her former beauty and who was arthritic, openly fed up with war, and seldom left the house. A spy. Absurd! Perhaps he was her grandson. But where had he come from? He'd just materialized one day, a tall young man with round, green eyes.
"I thought we'd take the early train up, celebrate your birthday with Colin. Would you like that, dear?"
"Oh, I would!"
"I do wish we could do more but I'm afraid I'll have to come directly back."
She looked tired. Rather absentmindedly she unpinned her hair, massaging her scalp as if the hairpins had inflicted wounds. Hilary watched her mother combing her fingers through her hair, smoothing it down, and felt that same helplessness she always felt when presented with her mother's fatigue. Something she couldn't ever remember before the war. At least Hilary didn't think she could recall her mother looking and acting so exhausted. But since the War, since she'd gone to work for the War Office, she'd become progressively more fatigued, growing older too quickly, losing so much of her previous elegant flair. So many of the old rules and practices had gone by the boards with this war. And seeing her mother in a permanent state of exhaustion, feeling the loss of all those formalities that had been the basis of the family's lifestyle, Hilary hated the war, hated the War Office, and hated whoever was responsible for working her mother into premature old age.
"It will end," her mother said, giving Hilary a hug. "I'm giving you a bit of privileged information, you understand. But it'll all be over very soon now. If all goes well. And you mustn't be such a worrier. I'm perfectly all right. Be right as rain with a few nights' sleep."
"When?" Hilary asked. "At the beginning, everyone kept saying just a few weeks or a few months. Now it's been years and years and it isn't ever going to end. And Father's never coming back!"
"Nonsense! Of course he'll be back. I'm for a bath and bed. We'll have a lovely day tomorrow and perhaps you'll cheer up enough to enjoy it. None of this is forever. You're far too young to be quite such a pessimist."
Her mother scooped up the hairpins and went off to take her bath, leaving Hilary feeling chastened, bemused, and surprised at her mother's being able to retain her optimism. But perhaps she did know and it would end, this war that had been happening for most of her life. Since 1939 if you counted all of it, and here it was already 1945 and she was going to be eighteen and for an entire third of her life there'd been this war.
Eighteen. Unless she could make up her mind to continue her education - which Alison was all for having her do - once her A levels were done, this would be her last year of school. If she didn't go on, what would she do? She couldn't imagine, just as she couldn't imagine their lives returning to their prewar pattern with Daddy working for the Admiralty but leaving the sea, perhaps. And Mother resuming her job with Beckwith-Prowther. Both of them going off of a morning, with Mrs. Ennis coming in half days to clean, and proper afternoon teas, with sweet cakes and biscuits, tea with real milk and sugar, and Colin buzzing through the rooms flying paper airplanes, or sitting glued to the wireless, or performing more of his experiments.
But how could it ever be the same? she wondered. Colin was too old now, perhaps, for paper airplanes. And Father still had not been heard from. Mother looked so much older, so tired. All the traditional things were gone. Mother no longer bothered to point out the "correct" things one did and did not do. Mother herself was no longer quite correct somehow. But Hilary kept it all up, maintained a proper sense of decorum, because if she maintained the habits, the values, surely the family would have to come back together again.
She sat listening to the sound of water running into the tub in the bathroom of the master suite, hearing her mother moving about in the bedroom, readying herself for her bath and the day's outing tomorrow. Hilary looked at the telephone. It scarcely ever rung. When it did, she always jumped, startled. The post was erratic. Letters took weeks, months, to arrive from America, Canada. The postman stopped to say good morning, shaking his head over the number of undelivered packages and letters, returning them to the GPO.
My birthday, she thought, trying to summon up some feeling of anticipation, some feeling at all. It wasn't easy. They'd spend the day with Colin, then return to the city. Mother would collapse into bed, then, come morning, be off again, for as long as two or three days and nights. She'd ring up, if she could, and say, "Sorry, dear. Be a good girl, and don't wait up for me."
She got up and turned off the lights and went to her room to prepare for bed. She looked at the neat rows of books in the small white bookcase: her own complete set of Beatrix Potter that Grandjoe and Elsa had given her. Grandmother Horton had given Colin his. Her books: storybooks, novels, textbooks; groups of books marking off the ages she'd passed through. She thought as she always did that one day she'd give the set of Potter books to her own children, and the Pooh books and Alice. Would she ever have any children? It seemed very unlikely, considering the majority of young men were off fighting the war, being killed. Women in the queues talked quietly of cousins and nephews, brothers, sons, dying in places with strange hard-to-pronounce names, speaking reverently of "our boys" and "our lads."
Her mother knocked and opened the door. Standing there in her nightgown, she smiled, saying, "Are you all right, dear?"
"Really? You seem terribly ... quiet. I do worry about you being on your own so much."
"I'm all right, really."
Her mother came over to sit down on the side of the bed. Hilary looked at her, studying her face, silently repeating her mother's name. Alison Alison Alison. My mother. Forty-one years old. It isn't really very old at all. And you're so pretty.
"What?" Alison smiled, tilting her head to one side questioningly.
"Nothing. I was simply thinking."
"Well, don't think quite so much. Have a good sleep. and we'll get an early start in the morning."
Hilary returned the smile, accepted her mother's embrace and kiss goodnight. She felt just for a moment like a small child again, being tucked in, having her forehead lightly, briefly stroked. The light was turned off, the door quietly closed. The master bedroom door closed. Then silence. Staring into the darkness, she wondered about the young man and Madame. Imagine having green eyes! How splendid to have green eyes! Infinitely more interesting and special than plain blue ones.
As they were hurrying out the next morning they met Madame and the young man coming in.
Madame smiled, saying, "Bonjour, bonjour! So very good to see you. We do not see you so very much these days."
Alison, smiling back, said, "Lovely to see you, too. You're looking wonderfully well." She'd always been especially fond of Madame.
Hilary said, "Good morning," glancing over at the young man, a little discomfited to find those green eyes fixed on her. Madame said, "I would introduce you to my nephew, Claude de Martin, the son of my brother. These are Madame Forbes and Mademoiselle Forbes."
They both shook hands with the nephew. Claude, in faltering English, said, "I am happy to meet you." His handshake was firm and hard, brisk. His smile was quite beautiful. Hilary felt giddy from the contact.
"We must rush," Alison explained, opening the outer door. "We've a train to catch."
Madame said, "But of course, of course."
Alison smiled again, saying, "Good to meet you, Claude." Then they were rushing so they wouldn't miss the train.
The train was already being boarded. They found an empty compartment, a smoker. Alison lit a cigarette, saying, "What an exceptionally handsome young man."
Hilary said, "Yes," and looked out of the window. Her before-the-war mother would never in a million years have said something like that. Would she have?
"Of course," Alison went on, disposing of her match, "Madame was quite a beauty in her time. I expect her brother must be quite something."
"Hmmm," Hilary murmured. "I expect so."
Alison looked out the window, enjoying the cigarette, thinking it was just short of tragic Hilary had had to spend so much time these past years completely on her own. She'd become far too old for her age, too silently introspective, too somehow set. Her bearing, her demeanor, that of someone far older. She'd grown very beautiful. She wondered if Hilary had any idea how beautiful she was. She appeared very unaware of herself, too much so.
Five bloody years and she'd missed so many important moments in her children's lives, moments lost forever. Not a word from Bram in months. Even exercising what influence she possessed - and to hell with it's not being the sort of thing one did - no one could pinpoint where he was or how he was or if, in fact, he was still alive. She tried hard not to think about him because it was a futile, depressing effort. Still, the idea that he mightn't ever come back nagged at her. It had been two years since his last leave. One brief trip to the country to visit with Colin. A few hours with Hilary. One night together, so nerved up they couldn't make love and had left each other, both of them distraught. One night simply not enough. They were two people who'd grown very far apart trying too hard to bring all the pieces back together in just one night. Impossible. The children would in all likelihood adapt to his failure to return, just as she'd managed to adapt to a lifestyle she'd never dreamed possible.
How would it be if he did come back? That thought was just as alarming as the other. Bloody war. It had to end, of course. And things were headed in that direction. But what if ... ? No. No! It simply had to end. People would somehow bring their lives back into some semblance of order. Yet she found it close to impossible to imagine returning to the old routines, going to the office each morning, returning home each evening, working without pressure, spending time with the children.
She looked across at Hilary, considering the way Hilary had reacted to Madame's nephew, and thought, You're not a child. Somewhere along the way, I missed the transition. Oh, I noticed random changes here and there, attitudes, mainly. I saw the changes, the growth but was unable to take the time out to stop and say, You're changing, becoming a beautiful woman. Tell me how you're liking growing up. Tell me how you feel, what you think during those long silences. No time. Somewhere we lost the family, the closeness, the warmth. And you've evolved into someone who's only just still recognizable. What will you be as a result of all this?
"Perhaps," she said, "once the war ends, we'll take a trip, visit Grandjoe and Elsa in America; my mother. Would you like that, Hilary?"
"All of us?"
"Of course all of us. Would you like it?"
"I'd love to see America."
"Once things are straightened out, perhaps we will."
Alison lit a fresh cigarette and resumed looking out the window, wondering why she felt no guilt whatsoever at having so easily discarded such a large number of her principles and certain of her vows. The war, of course; always the war. But what else could one do? After going for months without contact, without comfort, what more natural thing to do than accept what was offered, take the comfort? A few hours here and there, hours when she might have been with Hilary but somehow needed that little bit for herself in order not to have to think about the exhaustion, about working beyond her physical and emotional capacities. To enter into darkness, lie down in it with someone who'd become as familiar to her as the sound of her own voice, to ease the all-over ache, the grinding fatigue, to take shelter beneath someone's body and then sleep a deathlike sleep before having to put the uniform back on and return to the WO - separately, fifteen minutes apart - and all those intense, quiet voices, the sudden, frantic bursts of activity.
She didn't feel guilty. Five years ago, she might have. Five years ago, she'd have been telling Hilary to sit up a bit straighter. She'd have told her she'd stared rather rudely at that young man. Those things no longer mattered. Hilary, for her part, seemed to be still hearing all the things Alison might have said five years before.
No, she didn't feel guilty. She simply felt tired, all the time. That other had to do with taking comfort, renewing certain strengths. It didn't really affect anything. But the children. All the children. Not just her two but the thousands of them strewn all over the countryside. What long-term effects would all this have on them?
"I pretended he was a spy." Hilary laughed, color climbing into her cheeks.
"Madame's nephew. What was his name?"
"Claude, wasn't it?"
"He has splendid eyes, don't you think?"
"Green, weren't they?"
"Mmm. He's been staying at the flat with her close on a month now. I've seen him coming and going. I was convinced he was a spy."
Alison laughed, reassured by the rather childish quality of the conversation. Hilary wasn't quite a woman yet. Then she shook her head. "Poor you," she said gently. "No social life at all when you should be having the very best times."
"I'm not bothered," Hilary lied.
"It's no life at all, spending your time alone in the cinema, doing your studies when you should be out with friends, enjoying yourself. I am sorry."
"Do you honestly think it will end soon? Was it true what you said?"
"I hope so."
"I hope so, too. I want us all together again. Do you think Father's all right?"
"I don't know. I honestly don't know what to think anymore. It's become so much a matter of getting through one day at a time, I'm no longer sure of anything." She made herself smile, trying to be reassuring. "Not to worry," she said, mentally wincing at the falseness of her tone.
"It's odd seeing you without your uniform," Hilary observed. "Different."
Alison looked down at herself. "Rather strange to me, too. I want the bloody thing ended as much as you do!" she said hotly. Then quickly she tempered it, adding, "It's gone on far too long."
"I know." Hilary got up and sat down beside her mother. "You'll be able to have another good night's sleep tonight."
I should be comforting you, Alison thought, not daring to say anything further. She was too close to tears. And it simply wouldn't be fair, not on Hilary's birthday. She took hold of Hilary's hand and smoked her cigarette in silence, watching the countryside flow past the window.