“Gently now, Ruth, gently…” I caution. Ruth, stroking the neck of the newborn calf, looks up at me and nods solemnly. Jed who is stroking the other side also nods.
I bend down to talk to Ruth. “Now, Mister Heyes says you can name her. Would you like that?” Her thumb goes into her mouth. “Jed here,” I smile at Jed, “he named her sister, last year.” I brace myself, “Patchy.” Jed grins happily. “And, Hannibal, he named her mother…” I brace myself again. “Sinbad. So, now it’s your turn, Ruth.” Another nod from my young daughter. “Any ideas?”
After a moments hard concentration Ruth removes her thumb. “Finkin’,” she tells me, firmly.
“Well,” I straighten up, “I’ll leave you to make your mind up. No hurry. Keep an eye on your little sister, Jed.” He is softly scratching the back of the calf’s ear now and does not look up. However, there is another nod of the blond curls.
“What ‘bout Moby Dick?” he prompts her. Her pigtails shake. Clearly that has no appeal at all!
I go out of the stall, walk over to join Alex. He does not even glance up. To me, he appears to be planing an already perfectly flat piece of wood. Mind you, Alex has not been quite his usual self for a week or two now. Not moody, exactly. The correct word might be distracted.
“Alex,” I begin, “I was thinking, now it’s getting towards the end of the year …”
“Huh? Oh – yes. December already.” Then, though I do not believe he is exactly talking to me, more to himself. “Our anniversary the week before last…”
My brow puckers. Alex married Louisa in June.
“The first time we – well, not the first time we met, but the first time we KNEW. And, today, it’s the anniversary of the first time we kissed…”
For just a moment, I misunderstand. I feel myself stiffen in disapproval, as anger wells up inside me. I can hardly believe…
“Thirteen years ago, this very day…” His eyes still fixed on the grain, the tanned hands pushing the plane over and over the smooth surface.
Ah, I see. I feel a pang of guilt for mis-judging him, however short lived it was.
“Alex,” I start again, “I was thinking about the…” I hesitate. “About the nineteenth. It’s bound to be a difficult time for Hannibal. Do you want …?”
“Huh?” It seems to take him a few seconds to focus. “Sorry, Elizabeth. You were saying?”
“I was asking about Hannibal,” I say. “Might it be a good idea if he spent a couple of nights at our place, next week? Being with Jed and Esther might distract him a little. What do you think?” Alex looks blank. As if he has no idea what next week is. Surely, even with a distractingly pretty young wife, who treats him as the eighth wonder of the world and a new baby already well on the way, Alex cannot have forgotten. Surely! I spell it out, “It’s nearly a year since – since Sarah died.”
“Three hundred and fifty-three days,” he says. The planing hands do not miss a beat. I blink. It came out automatically. Alex is still not completely with me. “Eight thousand four hundred and eighty-five hours.” That too, comes out without a pause. He did not just work it out. I caught him off guard and… I realise the implication. For nearly a year, Alex has kept count…
I reach over, gently touch his arm. Finally, the brown eyes look up and meet mine. It dawns on him what he has just revealed. He blushes. Clearing his throat, he says gruffly, “Good idea, Elizabeth. Get Jed to invite him, keep it casual – I think it’d help. Thank you.” Another glance at me. The colour in his cheeks deepens, “Elizabeth,” he hesitates, “Please don’t…” He stops. When he carries on, it is clear he is choosing his words carefully. “It would be kinder to keep it a casual invitation in front of Louisa too.”
Oh. I see. Louisa still does not confide much in me, but there have been odd incidents where she tentatively asks about what – and she always takes a little breath before saying the name – Sarah used to do in certain situations. Her unspoken gnawing insecurity is pretty clear, ‘can I ever measure up?’ In my opinion the answer is ‘no’. Mind you, I am biased so do take my opinion with a pinch of salt. However, I appreciate Alex’s silent plea ‘Don’t tell her, I’ve been brooding again.’
Alex gives himself a little shake, as if to bring himself back to the here and now. He calls over to the two youngsters, still stroking the newborn, back in the far stall.
“How are you doing on that name, huh, Ruth?”
She scampers over, followed by Jed. A little finger beckons Alex, so she can whisper. He squats down, cups his ear, obediently.
“It’s dumb,” warns Jed. I give him a reproving frown. He pipes down.
I see Alex react and nod solemnly. “Shall we tell your Ma?” he asks. Thumb back in mouth, Ruth nods. “Princess Snow White,” Alex relays to me. “Isn’t that a BEAUTIFUL name?” Ruth looks smug.
“Lovely, Ruth,” I agree.
“It’s sappy!” mutters Jed, under his breath. “An’ dumb!”
I meet Alex’s eyes and give a tiny shrug. I can see Jed’s problem. The new calf is black as ebony from ear to tail-tip! ‘Patchy’ may have lacked imaginative flair but at least the creature HAD a patch!
Nathanial comes back in from unhitching our wagon. I have sent Jed and Ruth, both well wrapped up, to feed the pigs. I un-bundle little Sarah from the outdoor layers donned for the drive home from the Heyes’ place and settle her down for – I hope – a quiet nap.
“Well,” smiles Nathanial, lifting the kettle onto the stove, “I’d call that a pleasant morning visit!”
“Yes,” I agree. He and Alex have been working figures on Alex’s plans for a new house in the spring. I took advantage of a fine, crisp December day to go along for the ride and give Ruth her promised calf-naming turn. I shake my head, ruefully. ‘Princess Snow White’. Hannibal will not think much of reporting that back at school if he is asked.
“I still say,” goes on Nathanial, “Alex should have waited longer before remarrying. Sure and you agree with me there, Lizzie?”
“Mmm,” I temporise. “Yes. Maybe.”
I do agree. Just… Oh, I don’t know. I guess my opinion on the timing of Alex’s second marriage and my opinion on his choice of bride are so mixed up I am not sure I can keep them separate.
“It seemed…” Nathanial frowns, “Disrespectful…”
“Oh, no. That’s not the reason. I’m with Sarah on that one,” I say. “I remember the stories she told towards the end. Once the queen is dead it doesn’t matter if the king waits a day, a year, or the rest of his life. It can make no difference to her.”
Nathanial frowns some more over that. He can see my and Sarah’s point. He can even acknowledge it is right. Clearly, being right is not enough. It still FEELS wrong to him. This may be illogical but, on the whole, I find it endearing. If I died the best thing for Nathanial and by far the best thing for my seven children would be for him to marry again, as soon as possible and be happy. The sensible part of me would hope for that. Still, I cannot help being pleased Nathanial cannot picture it. He looks up, surprised, as I drop a kiss on the top of his head.
“Humph,” he compromises.
“And,” I offer, “a man does need a wife.”
“Sure and I’m too wise to be arguing about THAT,” he smiles. “I still say it was too soon. BUT, you’re right about one thing, me darling Lizzie, Louisa’s doing a fine, fine job of looking after him and Hannibal. And the house.”
“True,” I nod. Whatever else I might think I cannot fault Louisa as a hard worker! The Heyes’ place is spotless, cosy and welcoming. As for Hannibal – well! HE might not appreciate his stepmother’s skills, but I give Louisa due credit for a well-breakfasted, neatly darned, freshly pressed, warmly wrapped up little boy, sent to school every day with a tasty treat or two in his lunch pail and, after a wholesome supper, put to bed every night in clean sweet-smelling sheets. Those things take effort. Don’t I know it?
“She didn’t do such a bad job of looking after YOU this morning, Nathanial Curry!” I tease. “I hope you don’t expect any lunch after all that tea and strudel you guzzled, while telling the poor girl endless stories about ‘dear, green, old Ireland’?”
“Sure and wasn’t I just being polite?” he grins back. “No,” his face looks more serious, “I thought Alex made a big mistake, marrying in haste and picking someone so young, but maybe – just maybe – I was in the wrong of it. He could have done a lot worse.”
“He could have…” I bite it back.
Nathanial eyes me. I would not dream of saying anything to Alex – what is the point now? – but, Nathanial knows I had my fingers crossed for a match with Caroline Field. Nathanial says, “When all’s said and done Lizzie, even if I still think Alex acted like a fool, if the man fell in love …”
“Fell in love!” I scathe. The scene in the barn this morning only drove home what I already knew. I lift the boiling kettle and keep my eyes on the scalding water as I fill the teapot. “You can’t really think Alex ‘fell in love’ with Louisa Mueller? Pfffttt!”
“But…” Nathanial looks confused. “He acts …” He searches. “Sappy!” he decides, borrowing a word from the children. “You catch them – y’know – billing and cooing!”
“Pfffttt!” I repeat. “If you want my opinion…” I do not pause here, since my husband is going to GET my opinion whether he wants it or not! “On Alex’s side, half of that is guilt!”
I give my own poor, deluded member of the less perceptive sex a pitying look. “He feels guilty because he’s in love, alright. Just not with poor Louisa.”
Nathanial looks baffled. And shocked. And on tenterhooks for a name. His tawny eyebrows rise. “NOT Kate S…?”
“No! Tchah! With Sarah! He’s still head over heels in love with Sarah! Who else? He does his level best to act in love with Louisa, so SHE doesn’t suspect and WE don’t suspect he’s had second thou…” I stop. “Just my opinion,” I temporise. I wish I had not said all that. What good can any of it do? I guess the anniversary of Sarah’s death is getting to me, as well as to Alex.
Nathanial sips his tea, thoughtfully.
“I think we should keep two things firmly in mind, Nathanial,” I say, decidedly.
“One. Whether their marriage was a mistake or not, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans now. The minute the knot was tied they were in the same situation as you and me.” I give my husband another teasing smile. “Once I said ‘I do’ didn’t I have to make the best of my bad bargain?”
He raises his eyes heavenward in mock-resignation. “True enough, me darling Lizzie.” His turn to tease, “Sure and don’t I know it’s too late for regrets after some clever colleen snaps shut the manacles.” Another sip of tea. “And, the second thing?” Nathanial prompts.
“Alex and Louisa are none of our business!” I say, resolutely.
“Sure and where would we all be if we minded our own business?” protests Nathanial. He shakes his head at me. “I’m thinking that’d be no fun at all!”
“Did you and Mister Curry – I mean, Nathanial…” Louisa is still not quite used to calling Elizabeth and Nathanial by their given names. “Finish the plans?”
“Uh huh,” I grin. “Though, I think he spent more time wrapping himself around your baking and giving you blarney about his youthful adventures than thinking about lumber. I reckon you were Nathanial’s best audience in years! My only worry is he’ll turn up on the doorstep every morning until you’ve had his entire life story. You’d better make a fresh batch of strudel just in case.”
Louisa giggles and turns pink with pleasure, as she turns her attention back to pressing my shirts. She wants, so much, to be liked by Nathanial and Elizabeth not just for their own sakes but because it will please me. She asks, sometimes, ‘Did I say the right thing?’
She never has much to worry about with Nathanial. He is far too good-natured not to respond kindly to a warm-hearted girl trying her hardest to please.
With Elizabeth is it more difficult. Louisa sees Hannibal chattering away, ten to the dozen with Elizabeth. She sees him accepting – even seeking motherly cuddles and kisses. She wants SO much for him to do that with her. Elizabeth sees Louisa minds. It is awkward and there is no remedy. Elizabeth takes every chance she can to be supportive of Louisa, but what can she do? You cannot MAKE a seven-year old boy spontaneously give someone an affectionate hug. I put my insensitive male foot in it by explaining Elizabeth nursed Hannibal for his first couple of months while Sarah was sick. So, you could say she was his ‘foster-mother’. That was NOT helpful. The Curry children are of more use than anything I can say. Louisa, happy to plump down on the floor and join in their games, is a success with them. There is sometimes an unspoken competition as to who can be the one to get her giggling so much she cannot stop. And, dear little Ruth, finding her mother’s arms occupied by young Sarah, will often climb up onto Louisa’s lap for a cuddle.
I remember when Sarah and I first met Nathanial and Elizabeth. How easily we all made friends. Perhaps memory plays tricks? I daresay we all made an effort since failing to get along with your closest neighbours was simply not an option when we arrived. That first winter here, looking forward to our first Christmas in our new home… Our second Christmas as man and wife… Our third Christmas together…Looking forward to…
These last few weeks my mind is full of Sarah. Is it having too much time on my hands now the harvest is gathered? Maybe. Maybe it is knowing it will soon be a full year?
A whole year.
I cannot believe it.
I gave myself away to Elizabeth earlier. ‘Gave myself away’ is not really the right phrase. There is nothing wrong in missing my wife…
I have done it again. Only in my head, but I MUST stop. I glance up from the plans I am supposedly studying. Louisa catches my eye. She looks worried, but smiles. I smile back. I must remember even when talking to myself, to call HER my wife now.
“I was thinking, Alex, ‘bout the new house…”
I hope I did not give Elizabeth the impression I have any regrets. That is scarcely the behaviour of a gentleman! Besides, I tell myself, firmly, I do NOT have regrets. Admittedly, when I became engaged to Louisa it was not planned. It just happened. She flung herself into my arms and declared love and I – I missed…
I missed being in love SO much…So much…
I wanted to love her back, so much. She was so, so sweet… I wanted…
I did love her back. I DID! It WAS real!
“And for the parlour, what I’d really like is…”
What happened back in the spring is irrelevant anyhow. She has had my word, my solemn vow, to love her. I do NOT have any regrets. On the contrary – I determine to pull myself out of this wallowing – I am extremely fortunate. I set myself to count my blessings.
Louisa loves me.
We have a baby on the way and, to be honest, that alone would be enough to squash any regrets, even if I had any. Which I don’t. None.
Hannibal may resist any hint of ‘mothering’ by Louisa, but he gets all the benefits of feminine domestic comforts.
So do I. Get all the benefits of feminine domestic comforts, that is. In fact, I am spoiled rotten.
“I guess we couldn’t afford to buy a china hutch, but, you’re so clever, Alex… You could make some’n real pretty…”
There is only one real downside. Something that I never foresaw before the wedding.
I can no longer talk about Sarah.
She is in my mind ALL the time and I cannot TALK about her.
“And, I thought for Hannibal’s room…”
It is ironic. Louisa and I are together because of an evening she sat beside me while I opened my heart and poured out how much I missed Sarah. I did not realise that once we married, reminiscences about Sarah, however they left my mouth, became translated by Louisa into, ‘I’m not good enough. I must try harder.’ She does not complain. She TRIES not to show she is hurt. She fails, dismally.
“And we wouldn’t need to do much to the baby’s room right away, ‘cos he – or she – will be in our room…”
Of course, if Hannibal brings up the subject of his mother, I follow his lead. I get to talk about Sarah then. It is not quite the same, though. My whole concentration is on what will help my son most. I cannot just talk…
“If you can let me know the measurements of the windows, I can make a start…”
I used to reminisce with Caroline Field. She was such a good friend to us both. Not now though. In the first place I don’t want to discuss anything with Caroline I am not happy to repeat verbatim. I never know when I will be subjected to a ‘What were you talking about for so long?’ examination. Louisa is STILL jealous though I know she tries. In the second place, if Caroline Field… Well. If she… It could be nonsense of course. Part of me knows, now, it is not nonsense. I may have been blind back in the spring, but I am not so stupid I cannot see a truth when it is pointed out to me. If Caroline… And please believe I would never be such a rat as to refer to this out loud… If Caroline did fall in love with me, back in the spring – well… In that case, reminiscing about Sarah not only risks coming over as disloyal to Louisa, it is tactless to boot.
“Maybe blue for our room? It’s your favourite, huh, Alex?”
I glance over at the clock. Eight thousand four hundred and eighty-seven hours since…
All I can do is carry on behaving as well as I can, until…
Until the person I really want to talk to …
Suddenly, the unconscious expectation, which has nagged away under the circling thoughts in my brain stands out stark and clear. It is exactly the same expectation I could not silence in those long, long, wakeful nights when Sarah first …
“But, pink is so cheerful. What do you think?”
I am thinking: ‘All I have to do is behave as well as I can, until Sarah comes home and I can tell her all about it.’
I almost gasp at how stupid my own mind can be! Still! After all this time!
It makes no difference how well or badly I behave, how tactful or tactless I am.
Tomorrow there will be another twenty-four hours without Sarah.
And then another. And another. And another.
On the nineteenth – the day I am waiting for – nothing will happen. Nothing!
It will just be the start of another three-hundred and sixty-five days without her.
Every single day without her.
Forever and ever.
I will never see Sarah, nor touch her, nor hear her voice ever again.
Not next year. Not in a hundred years. Not in a thousand years.
I would trade everything – all the blessings I counted – for sixty seconds with Sarah.
My beloved, my first one, the light of my…
If I am never going to see her again…
I have still not got it, have I?
I am NOT going to see her again. Never. So, what is the point of…
My head falls forward into my hands. I cannot, CANNOT bear it.
“Alex…Alex…Alex…” I look up. “Alex…have you heard a word I’ve been sayin’?” Louisa scans my face, anxiously. “What’s wrong, Darling?” Then, the voice trembles, as she asks. “It’s not me, is it? You do…?” The blue eyes plead for reassurance. “You do love me – don’t you Alex?”
ABOUT HALF AN HOUR LATER
“Oh Alex…Oh Alex…”
I am afraid the dialogue is a touch monotonous.
“Oh Alex… That was so…”
Not that I am complaining, you understand. There may be men who become bored by a naked young woman, draped over them, flushed with pleasure, telling them over and over again how wonderful they are. IF there are such men I am not one of them.
I worked out, long ago, that as far as Louisa is concerned, the perfect answer to ‘Do you love me?’ is to be swept up in my arms and carried off to bed. Again, I am not complaining. When I was counting my blessings earlier, I guess I thought adding ‘We have a gratifyingly good sex life’ might sound a touch shallow. Consider it added.
“Oh, Alex…” she purrs, snuggling closer. “I don’t know what’s come over you…”
“Wasn’t it you, just now?” I say.
It takes her a second to ‘get’ this. “Alex!” she protests, giggling.
“Certainly sounded like you – from the squealing.” She knows I adore the fact she is delightfully noisy, so it is fine to tease her like this.
“Alex!” More giggling. “No! I don’t know what’s come over you these last few weeks! You’re …You’re…Well, y’know.” She nuzzles up, kisses me, where her head is resting on my chest. “I’m not complainin’.”
Louisa does have a point. These last few weeks, when I have not been sunk in my own thoughts, I have been… What is a polite way of putting it? “As hot and lecherous as is an nightingale.” Although why nightingales should be picked out as more amorous than other birds – search me. Why brooding over mortality has returned my appetite to honeymoon levels – again, search me. Though, I recall reading that when folks face imminent disaster – invasion, or imminent plague – sometimes there is an outbreak of rampant promiscuity. So, maybe, I too am manifesting rage and defiance against the cruel finality of death.
It is just as well I am keen, anyhow. I am not doing too well at hiding the brooding and it frets Louisa. Fortunately, she is young and romantic enough to think ‘if the sex is wonderful, he MUST love me’. She considers it definitive physical proof. I am glad. It is nonsense but, I am still glad.
Maybe I am wrong, calling it nonsense? The euphemism ‘making love’ did not come from nowhere. With my arms wrapped round Louisa like this, I want so much for her to be happy.
She wriggles back up the bed, leans on one elbow, smiling into my face.
“Hey,” I protest, pulling the quilt up too and tucking it back round her. “Don’t get cold.”
Under the covers a toe is run up my leg. A giggle. “You don’t need a quilt to keep me warm, do you, Alex?”
I am making sure ‘the bump’ is snugly covered. My hand lingers protectively. My free arm pulls Louisa close again. We kiss.
“Oh Alex,” she murmurs. “You do love me, don’t you?”
Since we are already in bed I cannot sweep her up and carry her off. A tiny part of me hesitates. I want so much for Louisa to feel safe and cherished and… If I am determined not to let myself have regrets, I am even more determined Louisa should have none. Those trusting blue eyes search mine. She is so sweet, she deserves to be happy. And it takes so little, all she needs is for me to… My hand is still stroking the swell of her belly. Tenderness wells up in me as I think about the baby.
Can anyone really argue this is not ‘love’? I certainly do not want to value semantics over another human beings feelings.
I slither under the quilt to kiss the ‘bump’. “I love you – both.” Another kiss for the bump. And another. I start to work my way down.
“Oh …Alex…” A different tone than before.
“We need to get up. Hannibal will be back from school. Y’know Caroline finishes in plenty of time for ‘em all to walk home in the light.”
I emerge from under the covers, glance at the window. Not far off the shortest day, Louisa is probably right. I pick up my watch and…I cannot help it. The thought is immediate and unbidden.
Eight thousand four hundred and eighty-eight hours since…