Author: P Hana

Page 19


“No.” I wiped my nose with the shredding tissue, dabbing carefully to keep it in one piece.

Frank leaned back in his chair, shaking his head as he looked at me.

“No, I suppose not,” he said. He was quiet for a minute, looking down at his folded hands. They were long-fingered, narrow; smooth and hairless as a girl’s. Elegant hands, made for casual gestures and the emphasis of speech.

He stretched them out on the table and looked at them as though he’d never seen them before.

“I haven’t got that,” he said quietly at last. “I’m good, all right. At what I do—the teaching, the writing. Bloody splendid sometimes, in fact. And I like it a good bit, enjoy what I do. But the thing is—” He hesitated, then looked at me straight on, hazel-eyed and earnest. “I could do something else, and be as good. Care as much, or as little. I haven’t got that absolute conviction that there’s something in life I’m meant to do—and you have.”

“Is that good?” The edges of my nostrils were sore, and my eyes puffed from crying.

He laughed shortly. “It’s damned inconvenient, Claire. To you and me and Bree, all three. But my God, I do envy you sometimes.”

He reached out for my hand, and after a moment’s hesitation, I let him have it.

“To have that passion for anything”—a small twitch tugged the corner of his mouth—“or anyone. That’s quite splendid, Claire, and quite terribly rare.” He squeezed my hand gently and let it go, turning to reach behind him for one of the books on the shelf beside the table.

It was one of his references, Woodhill’s Patriots, a series of profiles of the American Founding Fathers.

He laid his hand on the cover of the book, gently, as though reluctant to disturb the rest of the sleeping lives interred there.

“These were people like that. The ones who cared so terribly much—enough to risk everything, enough to change and do things. Most people aren’t like that, you know. It isn’t that they don’t care, but that they don’t care so greatly.” He took my hand again, this time turning it over. One finger traced the lines that webbed my palm, tickling as it went.

“Is it there, I wonder?” he said, smiling a little. “Are some people destined for a great fate, or to do great things? Or is it only that they’re born somehow with that great passion—and if they find themselves in the right circumstances, then things happen? It’s the sort of thing you wonder, studying history…but there’s no way of telling, really. All we know is what they accomplished.

“But Claire—” His eyes held a definite note of warning, as he tapped the cover of his book. “They paid for it,” he said.

“I know.” I felt very remote now, as though I were watching us from a distance; I could see it quite clearly in my mind’s eye; Frank, handsome, lean, and a little tired, going beautifully gray at the temples. Me, grubby in my surgical scrubs, my hair coming down, the front of my shirt crumpled and stained with Brianna’s tears.

We sat in silence for some time, my hand still resting in Frank’s. I could see the mysterious lines and valleys, clear as a road map—but a road to what unknown destination?

I had had my palm read once years before, by an old Scottish lady named Graham—Fiona’s grandmother, in fact. “The lines in your hand change as you change,” she had said. “It’s no so much what you’re born with, as what ye make of yourself.”

And what had I made of myself, what was I making? A mess, that was what. Neither a good mother, nor a good wife, nor a good doctor. A mess. Once I had thought I was whole—had seemed to be able to love a man, to bear a child, to heal the sick—and know that all these things were natural parts of me, not the difficult, troubled fragments into which my life had now disintegrated. But that had been in the past, the man I had loved was Jamie, and for a time, I had been part of something greater than myself.

“I’ll take Bree.”

I was so deep in miserable thought that for a moment, Frank’s words didn’t register, and I stared at him stupidly.

“What did you say?”

“I said,” he repeated patiently, “that I’ll take Bree. She can come from her school to the university, and play at my office until I’m ready to come home.”

I rubbed my nose. “I thought you didn’t think it appropriate for staff to bring their children to work.” He had been quite critical of Mrs. Clancy, one of the secretaries, who had brought her grandson to work for a month when his mother was sick.

He shrugged, looking uncomfortable.

“Well, circumstances alter cases. And Brianna’s not likely to be running up and down the halls shrieking and spilling ink like Bart Clancy.”

“I wouldn’t bet my life on it,” I said wryly. “But you’d do that?” A small feeling was growing in the pit of my clenched stomach; a cautious, unbelieving feeling of relief. I might not trust Frank to be faithful to me—I knew quite well he wasn’t—but I did trust him unequivocally to care for Bree.

Suddenly the worry was removed. I needn’t hurry home from the hospital, filled with dread because I was late, hating the thought of finding Brianna crouched in her room sulking because she didn’t like the current sitter. She loved Frank; I knew she would be ecstatic at the thought of going to his office every day.

“Why?” I asked bluntly. “It isn’t that you’re dead keen on my being a doctor; I know that.”

“No,” he said thoughtfully. “It isn’t that. But I do think there isn’t any way to stop you—perhaps the best I can do is to help, so that there will be less damage to Brianna.” His features hardened slightly then, and he turned away.

“So far as he ever felt he had a destiny—something he was really meant to do—he felt that Brianna was it,” Claire said. She stirred her cocoa meditatively.

“Why do you care, Roger?” she asked him suddenly. “Why are you asking me?”

He took a moment to answer, slowly sipping his cocoa. It was rich and dark, made with new cream and a sprinkle of brown sugar. Fiona, always a realist, had taken one look at Brianna and given up her attempts to lure Roger into matrimony via his stomach, but Fiona was a cook the same way Claire was a doctor; born to skill, and unable not to use it.

“Because I’m a historian, I suppose,” he answered finally. He watched her over the rim of his cup. “I need to know. What people really did, and why they did it.”

“And you think I can tell you that?” She glanced sharply at him. “Or that I know?”

He nodded, sipping. “You know, better than most people. Most of a historian’s sources haven’t your”—he paused and gave her a grin—“your unique perspective, shall we say?”

There was a sudden lessening of tension. She laughed and picked up her own cup. “We shall say that,” she agreed.

“The other thing,” he went on, watching her closely, “is that you’re honest. I don’t think you could lie, even if you wanted to.”

She glanced at him sharply, and gave a short, dry laugh.

“Everyone can lie, young Roger, given cause enough. Even me. It’s only that it’s harder for those of us who live in glass faces; we have to think up our lies ahead of time.”

She bent her head and shuffled through the papers before her, turning the pages over slowly, one by one. They were lists of names, these sheets, lists of prisoners, copied from the ledger books of British prisons. The task was complicated by the fact that not all prisons had been well-run.

Some governors kept no official lists of their inmates, or listed them haphazardly in their journals, in among the notations of daily expenditure and maintenance, making no great distinction between the death of a prisoner and the slaughter of two bullocks, salted for meat.

Roger thought Claire had abandoned the conversation, but a moment later she looked up again.

“You’re quite right, though,” she said. “I’m honest—from default, more than anything. It isn’t easy for me not to say what I’m thinking. I imagine you see it because you’re the same way.”

“Am I?” Roger felt absurdly pleased, as though someone had given him an unexpected present.

Claire nodded, a small smile on her lips as she watched him.

“Oh, yes. It’s unmistakable, you know. There aren’t many people like that—who will tell you the truth about themselves and anything else right out. I’ve only met three people like that, I think—four now,” she said, her smile widening to warm him.

“There was Jamie, of course.” Her long fingers rested lightly on the stack of papers, almost caressing in their touch. “Master Raymond, the apothecary I knew in Paris. And a friend I met in medical school—Joe Abernathy. Now you. I think.”

She tilted her cup and swallowed the last of the rich brown liquid. She set it down and looked directly at Roger.

“Frank was right, in a way, though. It isn’t necessarily easier if you know what it is you’re meant to do—but at least you don’t waste time in questioning or doubting. If you’re honest—well, that isn’t necessarily easier, either. Though I suppose if you’re honest with yourself and know what you are, at least you’re less likely to feel that you’ve wasted your life, doing the wrong thing.”

She set aside the stack of papers and drew up another—a set of folders with the characteristic logo of the British Museum on the covers.

“Jamie had that,” she said softly, as though to herself. “He wasn’t a man to turn away from anything he thought his job. Dangerous or not. And I think he won’t have felt himself wasted—no matter what happened to him.”

She lapsed into silence, then, absorbed in the spidery tracings of some long-dead writer, looking for the entry that might tell her what Jamie Fraser had done and been, and whether his life had been wasted in a prison cell, or ended in a lonely dungeon.

The clock on the desk struck midnight, its chimes surprisingly deep and melodious for such a small instrument. The quarter-hour struck, and then the half, punctuating the monotonous rustle of pages. Roger put down the sheaf of flimsy papers he had been thumbing through, and yawned deeply, not troubling to cover his mouth.

“I’m so tired I’m seeing double,” he said. “Shall we go on with it in the morning?”

Claire didn’t answer for a moment; she was looking into the glowing bars of the electric fire, a look of unutterable distance on her face. Roger repeated his question, and slowly she came back from wherever she was.

“No,” she said. She reached for another folder, and smiled at Roger, the look of distance lingering in her eyes. “You go on, Roger,” she said. “I’ll—just look a little longer.”

When I finally found it, I nearly flipped right past it. I had not been reading the names carefully, but only skimming the pages for the letter “J.” “John, Joseph, Jacques, James.” There were James Edward, James Alan, James Walter, ad infinitum. Then it was there, the writing small and precise across the page: “Jms. MacKenzie Fraser, of Brock Turac.”