“Thanks, Fiona,” he said. “I was only wondering, though; have you seen a big blue envelope—a fat one, about so?” He measured with his hands. “It came in the morning post, but I’ve misplaced it.”
“Ye left it in the upstairs bath,” she said promptly. “There’s that great thick book wi’ the gold writing and the picture of the Bonnie Prince on the front up there, and three letters ye’d just opened, and there’s the gas bill, too, which ye dinna want to be forgetting, it’s due on the fourteenth o’ the month. I’ve put it all on the top of the geyser, so as to be out of the way.” A tiny, sharp ding from the oven timer made her withdraw her head abruptly with a smothered exclamation.
Roger turned and went up the stairs two at a time, smiling. Given other inclinations, Fiona’s memory might have made her a scholar. As it was, she was no mean research assistant. So long as a particular document or book could be described on the basis of its appearance, rather than its title or contents, Fiona was bound to know exactly where it was.
“Och, it’s nothing,” she had assured Roger airily, when he had tried to apologize earlier for the mess he was making of the house. “Ye’d think the Reverend was still alive, wi’ such a moil of papers strewn everywhere. It’s just like old times, no?”
Coming down more slowly, with the blue envelope in his hands, he wondered what his late adoptive father might have thought of this present quest.
“In it up to the eyebrows, I shouldn’t wonder,” he murmured to himself. He had a vivid memory of the Reverend, bald head gleaming under the old-fashioned bowl lamps that hung from the hall ceiling, as he pottered from his study to the kitchen, where old Mrs. Graham, Fiona’s grandmother, would have been manning the stove, supplying the old man’s bodily needs during bouts of late-night scholarship, just as Fiona was now doing for him.
It made one wonder, he thought, as he went into the study. In the old days, when a man’s son usually followed his father’s profession, was that only a matter of convenience—wanting to keep the business in the family—or was there some sort of family predisposition for some kinds of work? Were some people actually born to be smiths, or merchants, or cooks—born to an inclination and an aptitude, as well as to the opportunity?
Clearly it didn’t apply to everyone; there were always the people who left their homes, went a-wandering, tried things hitherto unknown in their family circles. If that weren’t so, probably there would be no inventors, no explorers; still, there seemed to be a certain affinity for some careers in some families, even in these restless modern times of widespread education and easy travel.
What he was really wondering about, he thought to himself, was Brianna. He watched Claire, her curly gold-shot head bent over the desk, and found himself wondering how much Brianna would be like her, and how much like the shadowy Scot—warrior, farmer, courtier, laird—who had been her father?
His thoughts were still running on such lines a quarter-hour later, when Claire closed the last folder on her stack and sat back, sighing.
“Penny for your thoughts?” she asked, reaching for her drink.
“Not worth that much,” Roger replied with a smile, coming out of his reverie. “I was only wondering how people come to be what they are. How did you come to be a doctor, for instance?”
“How did I come to be a doctor?” Claire inhaled the steam from her cup of cocoa, decided it was too hot to drink, and set it back on the desk, among the litter of books and journals and pencil-scribbled sheets of paper. She gave Roger a half-smile and rubbed her hands together, dispersing the warmth of the cup.
“How did you come to be a historian?”
“More or less honestly,” he answered, leaning back in the Reverend’s chair and waving at the accumulation of papers and trivia all around them. He patted a small gilt traveling clock that sat on the desk, an elegant bit of eighteenth-century workmanship, with miniature chimes that struck the hour, the quarter, and the half.
“I grew up in the midst of it all; I was ferreting round the Highlands in search of artifacts with my father from the time I could read. I suppose it just seemed natural to keep doing it. But you?”
She nodded and stretched, easing her shoulders from the long hours of stooping over the desk. Brianna, unable to stay awake, had given up and gone to bed an hour before, but Claire and Roger had gone on with their search through the administrative records of British prisons.
“Well, it was something like that for me,” she said. “It wasn’t so much that I suddenly decided I must become a doctor—it was just that I suddenly realized one day that I’d been one for a long time—and then I wasn’t, and I missed it.”
She spread her hands out on the desk and flexed her fingers, long and supple, the nails buffed into neat, shiny ovals.
“There used to be an old song from the First World War,” she said reflectively. “I used to hear it sometimes when some of Uncle Lamb’s old army friends would come round and stay up late and get drunk. It went, ‘How You Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?’” She sang the first line, then broke off with a wry smile.
“I’d seen Paree,” she said softly. She looked up from her hands, alert and present, but with the traces of memory in her eyes, fixed on Roger with the clarity of a second sight. “And a lot of other things besides. Caen and Amiens, Preston, and Falkirk, the Hôpital des Anges and the so-called surgery at Leoch. I’d been a doctor, in every way there is—I’d delivered babies, set bones, stitched wounds, treated fevers…” She trailed off, and shrugged. “There was a terrible lot I didn’t know, of course. I knew how much I could learn—and that’s why I went to medical school. But it didn’t really make a difference, you know.” She dipped a finger into the whipped cream floating on her cocoa, and licked it off. “I have a diploma with an M.D. on it—but I was a doctor long before I set foot in medical school.”
“It can’t possibly have been as easy as you make it sound.” Roger blew on his own cocoa, studying Claire with open interest. “There weren’t many women in medicine then—there aren’t that many women doctors now, come to that—and you had a family, besides.”
“No, I can’t say it was easy at all.” Claire looked at him quizzically. “I waited until Brianna was in school, of course, and we had enough money to afford someone to come in to cook and clean—but…” She shrugged and smiled ironically. “I stopped sleeping for several years, there. That helped a bit. And oddly enough, Frank helped, too.”
Roger tested his own cup and found it almost cool enough to drink. He held it between his hands, enjoying the heat of the thick white porcelain seeping into his palms. Early June it might be, but the nights were cool enough to make the electric fire still a necessity.
“Really?” he said curiously. “Only from the things you’ve said about him, I shouldn’t have thought he’d have liked your wanting to go to medical school or be a doctor.”
“He didn’t.” Her lips pressed tight together; the motion told Roger more than words might, recalling arguments, conversations half-finished and abandoned, an opposition of stubbornness and devious obstruction rather than of open disapproval.
What a remarkably expressive face she had, he thought, watching her. He wondered quite suddenly whether his own were as easily readable. The thought was so unsettling that he dipped his face into his mug, gulping the cocoa, although it was still a bit too hot.
He emerged from the cup to find Claire watching him, slightly sardonic.
“Why?” he asked quickly, to distract her. “What made him change his mind?”
“Bree,” she said, and her face softened as it always did at the mention of her daughter. “Bree was the only thing really important to Frank.”
I had, as I’d said, waited until Brianna began school before beginning medical school myself. But even so, there was a large gap between her hours and my own, which we filled haphazardly with a series of more or less competent housekeepers and baby-sitters; some more, most of them less.
My mind went back to the frightful day when I had gotten a call at the hospital, telling me that Brianna was hurt. I had dashed out of the place, not pausing to change out of the green linen scrub-suit I was wearing, and raced for home, ignoring all speed limits, to find a police car and an ambulance lighting the night with blood-red pulses, and a knot of interested neighbors clustered on the street outside.
As we pieced the story together later, what had happened was that the latest temporary sitter, annoyed at my being late yet again, had simply put on her coat at quitting time and left, abandoning seven-year-old Brianna with instructions to “wait for Mommy.” This she had obediently done, for an hour or so. But as it began to get dark, she had become frightened in the house alone, and determined to go out and find me. Making her way across one of the busy streets near our house, she had been struck by a car turning into the street.
She wasn’t—thank God!—hurt badly; the car had been moving slowly, and she had only been shaken and bruised by the experience. Not nearly as shaken as I was, for that matter. Nor as bruised, when I came into the living room to find her lying on the sofa, and she looked at me, tears welling afresh on her stained cheeks and said, “Mommy! Where were you? I couldn’t find you!”
It had taken just about all my reserves of professional composure to comfort her, to check her over, re-tend her cuts and scrapes, thank her rescuers—who, to my fevered mind, all glared accusingly at me—and put her to bed with her teddy bear clutched securely in her arms. Then I sat down at the kitchen table and cried myself.
Frank patted me awkwardly, murmuring, but then gave it up, and with more practicality, went to make tea.
“I’ve decided,” I said, when he set the steaming cup in front of me. I spoke dully, my head feeling thick and clogged. “I’ll resign. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Resign?” Frank’s voice was sharp with astonishment. “From the school? What for?”
“I can’t stand it anymore.” I never took cream or sugar in my tea. Now I added both, stirring and watching the milky tendrils swirl through the cup. “I can’t stand leaving Bree, and not knowing if she’s well cared for—and knowing she isn’t happy. You know she doesn’t really like any of the sitters we’ve tried.”
“I know that, yes.” He sat opposite me, stirring his own tea. After a long moment, he said, “But I don’t think you should resign.”
It was the last thing I had expected; I had thought he would greet my decision with relieved applause. I stared at him in astonishment, then blew my nose yet again on the wadded tissue from my pocket.
“Ah, Claire.” He spoke impatiently, but with a tinge of affection nonetheless. “You’ve known forever who you are. Do you realize at all how unusual it is to know that?”