An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 53

   

I must say that a goose walked across my grave when I heard that. I’ve met men whose history I knew before—and at least one of those I knew to carry a doom with him. You don’t get used to the feeling, though. I looked at those boxes and wondered—ought I to write to Miss Hannah? Get off the ship in New Haven and go to see her? And tell her what, exactly?

All our experience to date suggests that there is absolutely nothing I could do to alter what’s going to happen. And looking at the situation objectively, I don’t see any way … and yet. And yet!

And yet, I’ve come close to so many people whose actions have a noticeable effect, whether or not they end up making history as such. How can it not be so? your father says. Everyone’s actions have some effect upon the future. And plainly he’s right. And yet, to brush so close to a name like Benedict Arnold gives one a right turn, as Captain Roberts is fond of saying. (No doubt a situation that gave one a left turn would be very shocking indeed.)

Well. Returning tangentially to the original subject of this letter, the mysterious Monsieur Beauchamp. If your father’s—Frank’s, I mean—if you still have the boxes of papers and books from his home office, and a free moment, you might go through them and see if you find an old manila folder in there, with a coat of arms drawn on it in colored pencil. I think that it’s azure and gold, and I recall that it has martlets on it. With luck, it still contains the Beauchamp family genealogy that my uncle Lamb wrote up for me, lo these many years ago.

You might just have a look and see whether the incumbent of the name in 1777 was perhaps a Percival. For the sake of curiosity.

The wind’s come up a bit, and the water’s getting rough. Your father has gone rather pale and clammy, like fish bait; I’ll close and take him down below for a nice quiet vomit and a nap, I think.

All my love,

Mama

STAG AT BAY

ROGER BLEW THOUGHTFULLY ACROSS the mouth of an empty stout bottle, making a low, throaty moan. Close. A little deeper, though … and of course it lacked that hungry sound, that growling note. But the pitch … He got up and rummaged in the refrigerator, finding what he was looking for behind a heel of cheese and six margarine tubs full of God knew what; he’d lay odds it wasn’t margarine.

There was no more than an inch or so of champagne left in the bottle—a remnant of their celebratory dinner the week before, in honor of Bree’s new job. Someone had thriftily covered the neck of the bottle with tinfoil, but the wine had of course gone flat. He went to pour it out in the sink, but a lifetime of Scottish thrift was not so easily dismissed. With no more than an instant’s hesitation, he drank the rest of the champagne, lowering the empty bottle to see Annie MacDonald holding Amanda by the hand and staring at him.

“Well, at least ye’re no puttin’ it on your cornflakes yet,” she said, edging past him. “Here, pet, up ye go.” She hoisted Mandy into her booster seat and went out, shaking her head over her employer’s low moral character.

“Gimme, Daddy!” Mandy reached for the bottle, attracted by the shiny label. With the statutory parental pause as he mentally ran through potential scenarios of destruction, he instead gave her his glass of milk and hooted across the champagne bottle’s fluted lip, producing a deep, melodious tone. Yes, that was it—something close to the F below middle C.

“Do again, Daddy!” Mandy was charmed. Feeling mildly self-conscious, he hooted again, making her fall about in a cascade of giggles. He picked up the stout bottle and blew across that one, then alternated, working up a two-note variation to the rhythm of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Attracted by the hooting and Mandy’s ecstatic shrieks, Brianna appeared in the doorway, a bright blue plastic hard hat in her hand.

“Planning to start your own jug band?” she asked.

“Already got one,” he replied, and having decided that the worst thing Mandy could do with the champagne bottle was drop it onto the rug, handed it to her and stepped out into the hall with Brianna, where he pulled her close and kissed her deeply, the baize door swinging shut with a cushioned foosh.

“Champagne for breakfast?” she broke the kiss long enough to ask, then returned for more, tasting him.

“Needed the bottle,” he mumbled, tasting back. She’d had porridge with butter and honey for breakfast, and her mouth was sweet, turning the champagne bitter on the edges of his tongue. The hall was chilly, but she was warm as toast under her fleece jumper. His fingers lingered just under the edge of it, on the bare soft skin at the small of her back.

“Ye’ll have a good day, aye?” he whispered. He fought the urge to slide his fingers down the back of her jeans; not respectful to be fingering the arse of a brand-new inspector of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board. “You’re bringing the hat home, after?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Thought ye might wear it in bed.” He took it from her hand and set it gently on her head. It made her eyes go navy blue. “Wear it, and I’ll tell ye what I wanted with the champagne bottle.”

“Oh, now there’s an offer I can’t re—” The navy-blue eyes slid suddenly sideways, and Roger glanced in that direction, to see Annie at the end of the hall, broom and dustpan in hand and an expression of deep interest on her narrow face.

“Yeah. Ah… have a good day,” Roger said, letting go hastily.

“You, too.” Face twitching, Brianna took him firmly by the shoulders and kissed him, before striding down the hall and past a round-eyed Annie, whom she airily wished good day in the Gaelic.

A sudden crash came from the kitchen. He turned automatically toward the baize door, though less than half his attention was on the incipient disaster. The greater part was focused on the sudden realization that his wife appeared to have departed for work wearing no knickers.

MANDY HAD, God knew how, managed to throw the champagne bottle through the window and was standing on the table, reaching for the jagged edge of the pane, when Roger rushed in.

“Mandy!” He grabbed her, swung her off the table, and in the same motion smacked her bottom once. She emitted an ear-piercing howl, and he carried her out under his arm, passing Annie Mac, who stood in the doorway with mouth and eyes all round as “O”s.

“See to the glass, aye?” he said.

He felt guilty as hell; what had he been thinking, handing her the bottle? Let alone leaving her by herself with it!

He also felt a certain irritation with Annie Mac—after all, she was employed to watch the children—but fairness made him admit that he ought to have made sure she’d come back to watch Mandy before he left. The irritation extended to Bree, as well, prancing off to her new job, expecting him to mind the household.

He recognized that the irritation was only his attempt to escape the guilt, though, and did his best to put it aside while soothing Mandy, having a wee chat about not standing on tables, not throwing things in the house, not touching sharp things, calling for a grown-up if she needed help—fat chance, he thought, with a wry inward smile; Mandy was the most independent three-year-old he’d ever seen. Which was saying something, considering that he’d also seen Jem at that age.

One thing about Amanda: she didn’t hold a grudge. Five minutes after being smacked and scolded, she was giggling and begging him to play dollies with her.

“Daddy’s got to work this morning,” he said, but bent so she could scramble onto his shoulders. “Come on, we’ll find Annie Mac; you and the dollies can maybe help her get the pantry sorted.”

Leaving Mandy and Annie Mac happily working in the pantry, supervised by an assortment of scabby-looking dolls and grubby stuffed animals, he went back to his office and got out the notebook into which he was transcribing the songs he’d so painstakingly committed to memory. He had an appointment later in the week to talk with Siegfried MacLeod, the choirmaster at St. Stephen’s, and had it in mind to present him with a copy of some of the rarer songs, by way of creating goodwill.

He thought he might need it. Dr. Weatherspoon had been reassuring, saying that MacLeod would be delighted to have help, especially with the children’s choir, but Roger had spent enough time in academic circles, Masonic lodges, and eighteenth-century taverns to know how local politics worked. MacLeod might well resent having an outsider—so to speak—foisted on him without warning.

And there was the delicate issue of a choirmaster who couldn’t sing. He touched his throat, with its pebbled scar.

He’d seen two specialists, one in Boston, another in London. Both of them had said the same thing. There was a possibility that surgery might improve his voice, by removing some of the scarring in his larynx. There was an equal possibility that the surgery might further damage—or completely destroy—his voice.

“Surgery on the vocal cords is a delicate business,” one of the doctors had said to him, shaking his head. “Normally, we don’t risk it unless there’s a dire necessity, such as a cancerous growth, a congenital malformation that’s preventing any useful speech—or a strong professional reason. A well-known singer with nodules, for instance; in that case, the desire to restore the voice might be sufficient motive to risk surgery—though in such cases, there usually isn’t a major risk of rendering the person permanently mute. In your case …”

He pressed two fingers against his throat and hummed, feeling the reassuring vibration. No. He remembered all too well what it felt like to be unable to speak. He’d been convinced at the time that he’d never speak—let alone sing—again; the memory of that despair made him sweat. Never speak to his children, to Bree? No, he wasn’t risking that.

Dr. Weatherspoon’s eyes had lingered on his throat with interest, but he hadn’t said anything. MacLeod might be less tactful.

Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth. Weatherspoon—to his credit—hadn’t said that in the course of their discussion. It had, however, been the quotation chosen for that week’s Bible group; it had been printed on their flyer, which was sitting on the rector’s desk. And in Roger’s hypersensitive frame of mind at the time, everything looked like a message.

“Well, if that’s what Ye’ve got in mind, I appreciate the compliment,” he said out loud. “Be all right with me if I wasn’t Your favorite just this week, though.”

It was said half jokingly, but there was no denying the anger behind it. Resentment at having to prove himself—to himself—one more time. He’d had to do it physically last time. Now to do it again, spiritually, in this slippery, less straightforward world? He’d been willing, hadn’t he?

“You asked. Since when do Ye not take yes for an answer? Am I missing something here?”

Bree had thought so; the height of their quarrel came back to him now, making him flush with shame.

“You had—I thought you had,” she’d corrected, “a vocation. Maybe that’s not what Protestants call it, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? You told me that God spoke to you.” Her eyes were intent on his, unswerving, and so penetrating that he wanted to look away—but didn’t.

“Do you think God changes His mind?” she asked more quietly, and laid her hand on his arm, squeezing. “Or do you think you were mistaken?”

“No,” he’d said, in instant reflex. “No, when something like that happens … well, when it did happen, I wasn’t in any doubt.”

“Are you now?”

“You sound like your mother. Making a diagnosis.” He’d meant it as a joke, but it wasn’t. Bree resembled her father physically to such a degree that he seldom saw Claire in her, but the calm ruthlessness in her questions was Claire Beauchamp to the life. So was the slight arch of one brow, waiting for an answer. He took a deep breath. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do.”

Anger bubbled up, sudden and bright, and he’d jerked his arm away from her grasp.

“Where in hell do you get off telling me what I know?”

She widened her stare. “I’m married to you.”

“You think that entitles you to try to read my mind?”

“I think that entitles me to worry about you!”

“Well, don’t!”

They’d made it up, of course. Kissed—well, a bit more than that—and forgiven each other. Forgiving, of course, didn’t mean forgetting.

“Yes, you do.”

Did he know?

“Yes,” he said defiantly to the broch, visible from his window. “Yes, I damned well do!” What to do about it: that was the difficulty.

Was he perhaps meant to be a minister but not a Presbyterian? Become a nondenominational, an evangelical … a Catholic? The thought was so disturbing, he was obliged to get up and walk to and fro for a bit. It wasn’t that he had anything against Catholics—well, bar the reflexes inbred by a life spent as a Protestant in the Highlands—but he just couldn’t see it. “Going over to Rome” was how Mrs. Ogilvy and Mrs. MacNeil and all the rest of them would see it (“Going straight to the Bad Place” being the unspoken implication); his defection would be discussed in tones of low horror for … well, for years. He grinned reluctantly at the thought.

Well, and besides, he couldn’t be a Catholic priest, now, could he? Not with Bree and the kids. That made him feel a little calmer, and he sat down again. No. He’d have to trust that God—through the agency of Dr. Weatherspoon—proposed to show him the way through this particular thorny passage of his life. And if He did … well, was that not evidence of predestination in itself?

Roger groaned, thrust the whole thing out of his head, and immersed himself doggedly in his notebook.

Some of the songs and poems he’d written down were well-known: selections from his previous life, traditional songs he’d sung as a performer. Many of the rare ones, he’d acquired during the eighteenth century, from Scottish immigrants, travelers, peddlers, and seamen. And some he’d unearthed from the trove of boxes the Reverend had left behind. The garage of the old manse had been filled with them, and he and Bree had made no more than a dent in it. Pure luck that he’d run across the wooden box of letters so soon after their return.

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