“You’ve got the money, now,” Roger said, for the tenth time.
“And your cloak,” Brianna chimed in.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Claire said impatiently. “Everything I need—or everything I can manage, at least,” she amended. She paused, then impulsively reached out and took both Bree and Roger by the hand.
“Thank you both,” she said, squeezing their hands. Her eyes shone moist, and her voice was suddenly husky. “Thank you. I can’t say what I feel. I can’t. But—oh, my dears, I will miss you!”
Then she and Bree were in each other’s arms, Claire’s head tucked into her daughter’s neck, the both of them hugged tight, as though simple force could somehow express the depth of feeling between them.
Then they broke apart, eyes wet, and Claire laid a hand on her daughter’s cheek. “I’d better go up now,” she whispered. “There are things to do, still. I’ll see you in the morning, Baby.” She rose on tiptoe to plant a kiss on her daughter’s nose, then turned and hurried from the room.
After her mother’s exit, Brianna sat down again with her glass of Coke, and heaved a deep sigh. She didn’t speak, but sat looking into the fire, turning the glass slowly between her hands.
Roger busied himself, setting the room to rights for the night, closing the windows, tidying the desk, putting away the reference books he had used to help Claire prepare for her journey. He paused by the jack-o’-lantern, but it looked so jolly, with the candlelight streaming from its slanted eyes and jagged mouth, that he couldn’t bring himself to blow it out.
“I shouldn’t think it’s likely to set anything on fire,” he remarked. “Shall we leave it?”
There was no answer. When he glanced at Brianna, he found her sitting still as stone, eyes fixed on the hearth. She hadn’t heard him. He sat down beside her and took her hand.
“She might be able to come back,” he said gently. “We don’t know.”
Brianna shook her head slowly, not taking her eyes from the leaping flames.
“I don’t think so,” she said softly. “She told you what it was like. She may not even make it through.” Long fingers drummed restlessly on a denimed thigh.
Roger glanced at the door, to be sure that Claire was safely upstairs, then sat down on the sofa next to Brianna.
“She belongs with him, Bree,” he said. “Can ye not see it? When she speaks of him?”
“I see it. I know she needs him.” The full lower lip trembled slightly. “But…I need her!” Brianna’s hands clenched suddenly tight on her knees, and she bent forward, as though trying to contain some sudden pain.
Roger stroked her hair, marveling at the softness of the glowing strands that slid through his fingers. He wanted to take her into his arms, as much for the feel of her as to offer comfort, but she was rigid and unresponsive.
“You’re grown, Bree,” he said softly. “You live on your own now, don’t you? You may love her, but you don’t need her anymore—not the way you did when you were small. Has she no right to her own joy?”
“Yes. But…Roger, you don’t understand!” she burst out. She pressed her lips tight together and swallowed hard, then turned to him, eyes dark with distress.
“She’s all that’s left, Roger! The only one who really knows me. She and Daddy—Frank”—she corrected herself—“they were the ones who knew me from the beginning, the ones who saw me learn to walk and were proud of me when I did something good in school, and who—” She broke off, and the tears overflowed, leaving gleaming tracks in the firelight.
“This sounds really dumb,” she said with sudden violence. “Really, really dumb! But it’s—” she groped, helpless, then sprang to her feet, unable to stay still.
“It’s like—there are all these things I don’t even know!” she said, pacing with quick, angry steps. “Do you think I remember what I looked like, learning to walk, or what the first word I said was? No, but Mama does! And that’s so stupid, because what difference does it make, it doesn’t make any difference at all, but it’s important, it matters because she thought it was, and…oh, Roger, if she’s gone, there won’t be a soul left in the world who cares what I’m like, or thinks I’m special not because of anything, but just because I’m me! She’s the only person in the world who really, really cares I was born, and if she’s gone…” She stood still on the hearthrug, hands clenched at her sides, and mouth twisted with the effort to control herself, tears wet on her cheeks. Then her shoulders slumped and the tension went out of her tall figure.
“And that’s just really dumb and selfish,” she said, in a quietly reasonable tone. “And you don’t understand, and you think I’m awful.”
“No,” Roger said quietly. “I think maybe not.” He stood and came behind her, putting his arms around her waist, urging her to lean back against him. She resisted at first, stiff in his arms, but then yielded to the need for physical comfort and relaxed, his chin propped on her shoulder, head tilted to touch her own.
“I never realized,” he said. “Not ’til now. D’ye remember all those boxes in the garage?”
“Which ones?” she said, with a sniffling attempt at a laugh. “There are hundreds.”
“The ones that say ‘Roger’ on them.” He gave her a slight squeeze and brought his arms up, crisscrossed on her chest, holding her snug against himself.
“They’re full of my parents’ old clobber,” he said. “Pictures and letters and baby clothes and books and old bits of rubbish. The Reverend packed them up when he took me to live with him. Treated them just like his most precious historical documents—double-boxing, and mothproofing and all that.”
He rocked slowly back and forth, swaying from side to side, carrying her with him as he watched the fire over her shoulder.
“I asked him once why he bothered to keep them—I didn’t want any of it, didn’t care. But he said we’d keep it just the same; it was my history, he said—and everyone needs a history.”
Brianna sighed, and her body seemed to relax still further, joining him in his rhythmic, half-unconscious sway.
“Did you ever look inside them?”
He shook his head. “It isn’t important what’s in them,” he said. “Only that they’re there.”
He let go of her then, and stepped back so that she turned to face him. Her face was blotched and her long, elegant nose a little swollen.
“You’re wrong, you know,” he said softly, and held out his hand to her. “It isn’t only your mother who cares.”
Brianna had gone to bed long since, but Roger sat on in the study, watching the flames die down in the hearth. Hallowe’en had always seemed to him a restless night, alive with waking spirits. Tonight was even more so, with the knowledge of what would happen in the morning. The jack-o’-lantern on the desk grinned in anticipation, filling the room with the homely scent of baking pies.
The sound of a footfall on the stair roused him from his thoughts. He had thought it might be Brianna, unable to sleep, but the visitor was Claire.
“I thought you might still be awake,” she said. She was in her nightdress, a pale glimmer of white satin against the dark hallway.
He smiled and stretched out a hand, inviting her in. “No. I never could sleep on All Hallows’. Not after all the stories my father told me; I always thought I could hear ghosts talking outside my window.”
She smiled, coming into the firelight. “And what did they say?”
“‘See’st thou this great gray head, with jaws which have no meat?’” Roger quoted. “You know the story? The little tailor who spent the night in a haunted church, and met the hungry ghost?”
“I do. I think if I’d heard that outside my window, I’d have spent the rest of the night hiding under the bedclothes.”
“Oh, I usually did,” Roger assured her. “Though once, when I was seven or so, I got up my nerve, stood up on the bed and peed on the windowsill—the Reverend had just told me that pissing on the doorposts is supposed to keep a ghost from coming in the house.”
Claire laughed delightedly, the firelight dancing in her eyes. “Did it work?”
“Well, it would have worked better had the window been open,” Roger said, “but the ghosts didn’t come in, no.”
They laughed together, and then one of the small awkward silences that had punctuated the evening fell between them, the sudden realization of enormity gaping beneath the tightrope of conversation. Claire sat beside him, watching the fire, her hands moving restlessly among the folds of her gown. The light winked from her wedding rings, silver and gold, in sparks of fire.
“I’ll take care of her, you know,” Roger said quietly, at last. “You do know that, don’t you?”
Claire nodded, not looking at him.
“I know,” she said softly. He could see the tears, caught trembling at the edge of her lashes, glowing with firelight. She fumbled in the pocket of her gown, and drew out a long white envelope.
“You’ll think me a dreadful coward,” she said, “and I am. But I…I honestly don’t think I can do it—say goodbye to Bree, I mean.” She stopped, to bring her voice under control, and then held out the envelope to him.
“I wrote it all down for her—everything I could. Will you…?”
Roger took the envelope. It was warm from resting next to her body. From some obscure feeling that it must not be allowed to grow cold before it reached her daughter, he thrust it into his own breast pocket, feeling the crackle of paper as the envelope bent.
“Yes,” he said, hearing his own voice thicken. “Then you’ll go…”
“Early,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Before dawn. I’ve arranged for a car to pick me up.” Her hands twisted together in her lap. “If I—” She bit her lip, then looked at Roger pleadingly. “I don’t know, you see,” she said. “I don’t know whether I can do it. I’m very much afraid. Afraid to go. Afraid not to go. Just—afraid.”
“I would be, too.” He held out his hand and she took it. He held it for a long time, feeling the pulse in her wrist, light and fast against his fingers.
After a long time, she squeezed his hand gently and let go.
“Thank you, Roger,” she said. “For everything.” She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips. Then she rose and went out, a white ghost in the darkness of the hall, borne on the Hallowe’en wind.
Roger sat on for some time alone, feeling her touch still warm on his skin. The jack-o’-lantern was nearly burned out. The smell of candle wax rose strongly in the restless air, and the pagan gods looked out for the last time, through eyes of guttering flame.
CRAIGH NA DUN
The early morning air was cold and misty, and I was glad of the cloak. It had been twenty years since I’d worn one, but with the sorts of things people wore nowadays, the Inverness tailor who’d made it for me had not found an order for a woolen cloak with a hood at all odd.