The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 221


That made her laugh again, a little wryly.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know.”

“What d’ye mean by that?”

“Well, when you hear things about somebody before you meet them, of course the real person isn’t just like what you heard, or what you imagined. But you don’t forget what you imagined, either; that stays in your mind, and sort of merges with what you find out when you meet them. And then—” She bent her head forward, thinking. “Even if you know somebody first, and then hear things about them later—that kind of affects how you see them, doesn’t it?”

“Aye? Mmm, I suppose so. Do ye mean . . . your other dad? Frank?”

“I suppose I do.” She shifted under his hands, shrugging it away. She didn’t want to talk about Frank Randall, not just now.

“What about your parents, Roger? Do you figure that’s why the Reverend saved all their old stuff in those boxes? So later you could look through it, learn more about them, and sort of add that to your real memories of them?”

“I—yes, I suppose so,” he said uncertainly. “Not that I have any memories of my real dad in any case; he only saw me the once, and I was less than a year old then.”

“But you do remember your mother, don’t you? At least a little bit?”

She sounded slightly anxious; she wanted him to remember. He hesitated, and a thought struck him with a small shock. The truth of it was, he realized, that he never consciously tried to remember his mother. The realization gave him a sudden and unaccustomed feeling of shame.

“She died in the War, didn’t she?” Bree’s hand had taken up his suspended massage, reaching back to gently knead the tightened muscle of his thigh.

“Yes. She—in the Blitz. A bomb.”

“In Scotland? But I thought—”

“No. In London.”

He didn’t want to speak of it. He never had spoken of it. On the rare occasions when memory led in that direction, he veered away. That territory lay behind a closed door, with a large “No Entry” sign that he had never sought to pass. And yet tonight . . . he felt the echo of Bree’s brief anguish at the thought that her son might not recall her. And he felt the same echo, like a faint voice calling, from the woman locked behind that door in his mind. But was it locked, after all?

With a hollow feeling behind his breastbone that might have been dread, he reached out and put his hand on the knob of that closed door. How much did he recall?

“My Gran, my mother’s mum, was English,” he said slowly. “A widow. We went south to live with her in London, when my dad was killed.”

He had not thought of Gran, any more than his mum, in years. But with his speaking, he could smell the rosewater and glycerine lotion his grandmother had used on her hands, the faintly musty smell of her upstairs flat in Tottenham Court Road, crammed with horsehair furniture too large for it, remnants of a previous life that had held a house, a husband, and children.

He took a deep breath. Bree felt it, and pressed her broad firm back encouragingly against his chest. He kissed the back of her neck. So the door did open—just a crack, maybe, but the light of a wintry London afternoon shone through it, lighting up a stack of battered wooden blocks on a threadbare carpet. A woman’s hand was building a tower with them, the faint sun scattering rainbows from a diamond on her hand. His own fingers curled in reflex, seeing that slim hand.

“Mum—my mother—she was small, like Gran. That is, they both seemed big, to me, but I remember . . . I remember seeing her stand on her tiptoes to reach things down from the shelf.”

Things. The tea-caddy, with its cut-glass sugar bowl. The battered kettle, three mismatched mugs. His had had a panda bear on it. A package of biscuits—bright red, with a picture of a parrot . . . My God, he hadn’t seen those kind ever again—did they still make them? No, of course not, not now . . .

He pulled his veering mind firmly back from such distractions.

“I know what she looked like, but mostly from pictures, not from my own memories.” And yet he did have memories, he realized, with a disturbing sensation in the pit of his stomach. He thought “Mum,” and suddenly he didn’t see the photos anymore; he saw the chain of her spectacles, a string of tiny metal beads against the soft curve of a breast, and a pleasant warm smoothness, smelling of soap against his cheek; the cotton fabric of a flowered housedress. Blue flowers. Shaped like trumpets, with curling vines; he could see them clearly.

“What did she look like? Do you look like her at all?”

He shrugged, and Bree shifted, rolling over to face him, her head propped upon her outstretched arm. Her eyes shone in the half-dark, sleepiness overcome by interest.

“A little,” he said slowly. “Her hair was dark, like mine.” Shiny, curly. Lifting in the wind, sprinkled with white grains of sand. He’d sprinkled sand on her head, and she brushed it from her hair, laughing. A beach somewhere?

“The Reverend kept some pictures of her, in his study. One showed her holding me on her lap. I don’t know what we were looking at—but both of us look as though we’re trying hard to keep from laughing. We look a lot alike in that one. I have her mouth, I think—and . . . maybe . . . the shape of her brows.”

For a long time he had felt a tightness in his chest whenever he saw the pictures of his mother. But then it had passed, the pictures lost their meaning and became no more than objects in the casual clutter of the Reverend’s house. Now he saw them clearly once again, and the tightness in his chest was back. He cleared his throat hard, hoping to ease it.

“Need water?” She made to rise, reaching for the jug and cup she kept for him on the stool by the bed, but he shook his head, a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“It’s all right,” he said, a little gruffly, and cleared his throat again. It felt as tight and painful as it had in the weeks just past the hanging, and his hand involuntarily sought the scar, smoothing the ragged line beneath his jaw with the tip of a finger.

“You know,” he said, seeking at least a momentary diversion, “you should do a self-portrait, next time you go to see your aunt at River Run.”

“What, me?” She sounded startled, though, he thought—perhaps a bit pleased at the idea.

“Sure. You could, I know. And then there’d be . . . well, a permanent record, I mean.” For Jem to remember, in case anything should happen to you. The words floated above them in the dark, striking them both momentarily silent. Damn, and he’d been trying to reassure her.

“I’d like a portrait of you,” he said softly, and reached out a finger to trace the curve of cheek and temple. “So we can look at it when we’re very old, and I can tell ye that you haven’t changed a bit.”

She gave a small snort, but turned her head and kissed his fingers briefly, before rolling onto her back. She stretched, pointing her toes until her joints cracked, then relaxed with a sigh.

“I’ll think about it,” she said.

The room was quiet, save for the murmur of the fire and the gentle creak of settling timber. The night was cold, but still; the morning would be foggy—he had felt the damp gathering in the ground when he’d gone outside, breathing from the trees. But it was warm and dry within. Brianna sighed again; he could feel her sinking back toward sleep beside him, could feel it coming for him, too.

The temptation to give in and let it carry him painlessly away was great. But while Brianna’s fears were eased for the moment, he still heard that whisper—“He wouldn’t remember me at all.” But it came now from the other side of the door in his mind.

Yes, I do, Mum, he thought, and shoved it open all the way.

“I was with her,” he said softly. He was on his back, staring up at the pine-beamed ceiling, the joins of the rafters barely visible to his dark-adapted eyes.

“What? With who?” He could hear the lull of sleep in her voice, but curiosity roused her briefly.

“With my mother. And my grandmother. When . . . the bomb.”

He heard her head turn sharply toward him, hearing the strain in his voice, but he looked straight upward into the dark roof-beams, not blinking.

“Do you want to tell me?” Brianna’s hand found his, curled round it, squeezing. He wasn’t sure at all that he did, but he nodded a little, squeezing back.

“Aye. I suppose I must,” he said softly. He sighed deeply, smelling the lingering scents of fried corn-mush and onions that hung in the corners of the cabin. Somewhere in the back of his nose, the imagined scents of hot-air registers and breakfast porridge, wet woolens, and the petrol fumes of lorries woke silent guides through the labyrinth of memory.

“It was at night. The air-raid sirens went. I knew what it was, but it scared the shit out of me every time. There wasn’t time to dress; Mum pulled me out of bed and put my coat on over my pajamas, then we rushed out and down the stairs—there were thirty-six steps, I’d counted them all that day, coming home from the shops—and we hurried to the nearest shelter.”

The nearest shelter for them was the Tube station across the street; grubby white tiles and the flicker of fluorescent lights, the thrilling rush of air somewhere deep below, like the breathing of dragons in nearby caves.

“It was exciting.” He could see the crush of people, hear the shouting of the wardens over the noise of the crowd. “Everything was vibrating; the floors, the walls, the air itself.”

Feet thundered on the wooden treads as streams of refugees poured into the bowels of the earth, down one level to a platform, down another, yet another, burrowing toward safety. It was panic—but an orderly panic.

“The bombs could go through fifty feet of earth—but the lower levels were safe.”

They had reached the bottom of the first stairway, run jostling with a mass of others through a short, white-tiled tunnel to the head of the next. There was a wide space at the head of the stairway, and the crowd pooled in a swirling eddy into it, swelling with the pressure of refugees pouring from the tunnel behind, draining only slowly as a thin stream crowded onto the stair leading down.

“There was a wall round the head of the stair; I could hear Gran worrying that I’d be crushed against it—people were pouring down from the street, pressing from behind.”

He could just see over the wall, standing on his toes, chest pressed against the concrete. Down below, emergency lights shone in interrupted streaks along the walls, striping the milling crowd below. It was late night; most of the people were dressed in whatever they had been able to seize when the siren went, and the light glowed on unexpected flashes of bare flesh and extraordinary garments. One woman sported an extravagant hat, decorated with feathers and fruit, worn atop an ancient overcoat.

He had been watching the crowd below in fascination, trying to see if it was really a whole pheasant on the hat. There was shouting; an air-raid warden in a white helmet with a big black “W,” beckoning madly, trying to hasten the already rushing crowd toward the far end of the platform, making room for those coming off the stair.