Prelude

The dining room at Ingleside always reminded me of piano music. It has a beautiful symmetry, like Chopin's Raindrop or Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. Whenever I'm in there I want to dance my fingers over every object and play around the room. You come through a cherry wood door. On the opposite wall is a painting by the daughter of one of Anne's Redmond chums. It's supposed to be of a large villa, but it isn't like any villa I have seen, done in thick daubs of pigment they are almost quilt-like. Susan is fond of saying Dog Monday could do better. But I think I understand what the artist – who is also named Stella – is trying to do, and that is to paint feelings. At least I am always filled with feeling when I look at it. Perhaps it is the title, The House of All Sorts. I imagine it as a sort of haven for people who don't fit.

To the right is a window with a view out to an ancient pear tree. It's as tall as the house and as scarlet as the fire that now blazes in the five foot fireplace on the other side of the room. In the middle of this like a fat round stomach or a beating heart is the dining table. It's made of walnut which means I always see faces in it, and has the sort of ball and claw feet that make me anxious of dropping my napkin. If I had to choose I would say the chairs are my favourites, upholstered with a velvet as soft and green as the mossy banks of the Valley stream.

It was there we first met the Blythes. Our Aunt Martha had ordered us out of the house, and we were tired of playing in the old cemetery and decided to explore what we had only known as tree tops, never thinking we might find paradise. There was thirteen year old Jem frying trout over a fire, Nan strewing a log table with tiny flowers, Di distributing leaf plates, Shirley on his stomach, and Walter on his back reciting bits of Longfellow. It was a world complete and so perfectly made for children, I felt I had walked into Neverland. In my head I had designated Jem as Peter Pan, the natural leader of our little band. Though I soon began to think of him as Hook for stealing my sister away. It hadn't occurred to me that Faith wanted to be captured. Or that Walter was really Pan. The boy who never grew up.

He was now in a silver frame on the mantelpiece, with his arm around another soldier, looking as if he had just shared a joke. Anne found it among his personal effects that were sent home when he died. Before its discovery she'd vowed she would never display a picture of her son in uniform, because that wasn't how she wanted to remember him. But this photograph... it is beautiful, joyful proof that Walter remained Walter to the end.

I could feel his presence like the glow of the fire behind me. Here we sat like three little maids in a row; Merry prodding her finger over her plate in a bid to collect the last crumbs of cheese, while Rilla chewed on her pencil. Although she happened to be thinking over a particularly knotty problem that wasn't the reason the pencil was in her mouth. She is never seen without one lately, and confessed to me daily that she would dive into the coal scuttle and eat the lot if she thought that no one would miss it. Chalk, tar, turpentine, fresh cut wood and brick dust called to her like a Siren to a sailor.

"I've even tasted Ingleside," she said, wiping the corner of her mouth and inspecting her finger for pencil lead. "You know that spot where Father backed the motor into the side of the house? I was there the other day hunting about for my glove when I spotted a nasty gouge in the wall, and the next thing I knew I was licking it."

"I dare say this isn't the only house you've sampled," said Merry, winking at me.

Rilla laughed. "Oh dear, you've got me there," she said, "It's true. Ken thinks it's a hoot, says I must be growing some great engineer. I've had a little taste of the Manse and the Meades and Yew Tree cottage. As for the House o' Dreams, I feel I've eaten half the chimney breast. It's awful I know, but I can't seem to help myself. No doubt Father would give me lots of sensible reasons why I should stop. But I'm afraid if he does forbid me I might resort to pulling my hair out like poor Mrs Shearsmith."

"Who would that be?" Merry asked her, peering hopefully at my plate. I began to stack them and brush the crumbs from the tablecloth.

"She was the wife of one of the Lowbridge doctors. Lowbridge is to the east of the Glen, on the other side of Upper Glen hill."

"So let me see," Merry cut in. She held her out her left hand and poked at her palm. "Glen St Mary lies in the valley and is named for the river that starts in the hill to the west. To the north is you, Rilla, which is Windy Point." she said, wriggling her thumb.

"Four Winds," I said. "Four Winds Point is where the lighthouse is."

"Four Winds. Just so. And then there's the harbour, which is made up of Harbour Head, Harbour Mouth and Over Harbour," she said, counting off her index, middle and ring fingers.

"Which leads into Lowbridge," Rilla concluded, grasping Merry's pinky. "Though I'm sure they'd hate being thought of as smaller than the Glen. Lowbridge has a larger population but it's more spread out. They're farming country and we're a port. The Shearsmiths were at Creek House, at the smart end of Main street. It's a really splendid place, as grand as anything you might see in Charlottetown. But Dr Shearsmith couldn't bear to live there anymore."

"Don't tell me his wife went off with some other fellow?"

"If only she had, he might have got over that. She drowned herself after news that her youngest boy died of wounds. She'd already lost a son at Ypres and another at Selle."

"Ah," said Merry. She placed her hand on Rilla's and patted it briskly. "We won't dwell on that now. Best not to dwell. You're doing your bit, growing a new little life for the world." The fire behind her seemed to crackle with agreement and she looked out to the pear tree and smiled. "Doesn't it make you glad to think our children will never know what war is. The war to end all wars, that's how we must think of it. If you keep living in yesterday your child may never want to come out."

Rilla grimaced. "That's fine by me," she said.

"You're not the first to think that, Rilla my dear, but nature has her ways. You won't always have such a neat little bump. By the end you'll be waddling and clutching your back and and that fed up. It's when they get fed up you know the confinement's come to an end. I never go by size nor weeks, but how foul-tempered the lass gets. Never mind your lily of the field, it's the cow in the field you should aspire to. Nice big yawping bellows, they'll bring a child out better than goose grease."

Rilla was eyeing me with a look we had all become adept at since Merritt's arrival. Though she had been with us for nearly three weeks we had yet to get used to her ripe remarks.

"Have you assisted with many deliveries, Merry?" I said, plucking the pencil from Rilla's lips.

"More than my share, I'd say, and I hope that fat little gent I coaxed out in Kingsport shall be my last. I will always be sorry not to have made it in time for your big day, Rilla. Not that you were expecting me – well, I was hardly expecting myself!"

Merritt had gone to the Liverpool docks to say farewell to Shirley, never expecting to see him again. He hadn't planned to propose, she said, and most would say he still hadn't. Merely asked her, "What have you got to stay here for, Merry-girl, why don't you come with me?"

She left with the clothes she was standing in, which explained the strange hat. That, along with two blouses, a coat and a skirt were all she managed to scare up from the female passengers. Shirley had already purchased a good sized cabin for himself, after so much time in the air he couldn't bear to sleep below decks. There was certainly room for Merritt but they must be married first. For three days he slept on a deckchair waiting for the ship's captain to arrange a license, after which the journey home became their honeymoon.

They had planned to send a telegram when they disembarked at Kingsport. Then Merritt was called to assist with a difficult labour lasting almost two days. It wasn't until they arrived at Glen station and saw no one was there to meet them, that they realised their mistake. Shirley had suggested his wife hole up in Charlottetown while he went to Ingleside to explain. Merritt refused, telling him plainly that if she couldn't make his family love her she would go back to England and no harm done. When she said that to me it made a sudden sense why my sturdy, quiet chum had fallen in love with her. Merritt wasn't a meringue at all, but a peach. She might be gushingly sweet on the outside but inside she was steady as stone.

"I've done my dash with birthing babies," she continued. "I want my own children now. But not yet. Brownie and I have been as madly romantic as we ever mean to be. Now's the time to lay a good foundation for our future. Oh, we have grand plans, Brownie and I."

The first being they meant to stay on at Ingleside for a year at least. They might have been content with a little place like the Douglas' but that would never suit Susan, and both Merritt and Shirley were adamant that Susan must live with them. I hadn't heard Susan's opinion on this, but I am sure it would be more forthcoming if she didn't have Merritt's vegetarianism to puzzle over.

"Even Romans eat fish on a Friday," she had muttered to Rosemary after service this morning. "Miss Merritt won't even have that!"

Rilla and I had walked back from church together. Ken didn't do church, though he promised Rilla he wouldn't work on his book. And I believed him. As we waded through the meadowsweet I could picture him on the back step with his coffee and his cigarettes. Other visions, of Rilla being riled by the lack of electricity for all those sparkling appliances, had never come to pass. She was luminously happy about her lot. What did it matter if the old stove burnt the bottoms of her loaves and left them raw on top, or whether she lived in an apron so she didn't make more laundry than she needed to? Rilla erupted with giggles then and told me about an incident where she had rushed to the front door to sign for a parcel and couldn't understand why the delivery boy went scarlet.

"It wasn't until we undressed for bed that I realised I had thrown my apron over my underthings – and never put on a dress!"

I went red too. Not because of her mistake, but because it never occurred to me that once you marry you were expected to get undressed in front of the other person.

We saw Merry waving to us from the attic room as we passed through the garden, her white arm fluttering excitedly like a gull at a shoreside picnic. She was in the hall when we entered and drew us into the dining room where we discovered she had been working on a floorplan of the house. Rilla looked at the drawing with a glee she usually reserved for bits of coal, and set upon it with her usual determination to organise us perfectly.

"Nan is the problem," she said, thoughtfully, sipping at her ginger tea. "If she would only make up her mind what job she means to apply for, then sorting out the rooms would be simple. Miss Cornelia in the spare room –"

"We're more than happy to move from there, but I should tell you Mother Susan won't like it." Merry said. She may have had a tenuous grasp of geography but she knew the lay of the land when it came to Ingleside.

"Nothing for it, I'm afraid. It's the only bedroom on the ground floor. Plus it has the advantage of being next door to the library which Miss Cornelia could use as her sitting room."

It also had the disadvantage of being across the hall from Susan's kitchen. But none of us wanted to mention that.

"Then we have you and Shir up in the boys' old attic room."

"Gets the tick from me. That room's as big as my aunt's whole flat."

"Hmm, so that leaves the twin's room, my old room, and the little room. The twin's room would make the best spare room. It's by far the largest and prettiest, but it still has Nan in it."

"I'm happy to take the little room," I said quietly.

Rilla looked at me.

"It's a bare box," Merry objected, "you don't want to be in there, Una dear. Maybe you could share with Nan."

Truth be told, I would feel more uncomfortable sharing a room with the girl my brother had let down. I foresaw nights when she might ask what I thought had gone wrong? And days when her twin sister would come home for the holidays with a look on her face as if to say, Who's sleeping in my bed?

Di had returned to Kingsport to study medicine, and though it was only October her letters revealed she was already anticipating Christmas. She had fought hard to be accepted into medical school. Redmond doesn't have enough women wanting to become doctors to necessitate the all-female class most colleges insisted on. There was talk of her going to Boston, until the Redmond faculty reluctantly agreed that Di might enrol with the men – many of whom aren't happy about it. It's all very well women doing their bit in wartime, they would tell her, but this is the Peace and time for things to go back to how they were. Of course, Di Blythe was the sort to face the foe head on, but I knew the winter break beckoned warmly after so many cold shoulders.

As it turned out Di never came back for Christmas. She and Carl met up with all our parents and Jerry at the Kingsport station on Boxing Day. From there they went onto Toronto to spend two weeks with the Fords and, all going well, the latest additions to the Blythe clan.

On the first hour of 1920 Susan took the call that two little boys had come into the world – with Faith's gold hair, Jem's perfect ears, and eyes in colours no one could agree upon. Susan hadn't slept for three days in anticipation of that call, and promptly fell asleep at the kitchen table with a vivid smile on her face. It was decided that I should telephone to Four Winds, then put a call through to where Nan was staying. After reassuring Mrs Wright that we hadn't all been killed in our beds, I heard Nan's voice, soft with sleep.

"Una, is that you, is it the babies, are they here?"

"Mrs Wright wanted me to be the one to tell you. They arrived not two hours ago. James Gerald born at two minutes to midnight and Walter John born twelve minutes after. Both healthy and strong, as is Faith by all accounts."

I relayed all I knew about weights and lengths and hours spent in labour. Like his father, Jem had stayed at his wife's side for the birth. At first he was rendered speechless by Faith's endurance, and then unable to stop raving about the perfection of his sons.

"The names are perfect," Nan said. "Mother will be – oh I'm so happy for Mother. And your father. And Carl and Rosemary and – Jerry. James Gerald. Goodness, won't Faith have her hands full. Did you speak to your brother at all?

"No."

"Well, if you should speak to him – you will speak to him again before he goes onto Siam, won't you? – tell him the interview at White Sands Emporium went better than expected. They want me to start next week. Not on the floor, as a buyer. Oh, Una I have to go – is Shir wanting to talk? Fred has given Diana the nod to make a long distance call to Toronto."

"No message from Shirley but he's blowing you a kiss."

"All right darling. God bless."

She was fine till the God bless. God bless is how we say goodbye to each other at the Manse. Nan would have caught the habit from Jerry and said it without thinking. I heard her voice catch, she rang off abruptly, and I stood in the hallway listening to Susan snoring in her chair.

"What was that, Una, has Dog Monday run all the way back from Toronto?" Cornelia barked, peering from behind the door of the spare room. "I can hear someone making the most unholy noise!"

I put the receiver in its cradle and offered to make some warm milk. Sure enough Shirley and Merry appeared hoping for a cup, and by the time I had tucked Susan into bed the sun was doing the same to the stars. I was turning out all the lights and checking the door as I always do, when I found myself in the dining room again. A watery moon shone through the window and lit upon Walter's laughing face. We shared a glass of cinnamon milk and I told him all about his nephews.

"We're keeping faith, just like you told us to, Walter. We're all of us keeping faith."

...

* The House of All Sorts is actually a book by a wonderful early 20th century Canadian artist called Emily Carr. I like to imagine Stella Maynard made a home for herself there, and lead a very adventurous life.

* A flat is an English term for an apartment

Thank you for reading, for your reviews and faves. I still have three new characters to introduce but I keep falling into backstory which is slowing the plot down. I am doing what I can to speed it along but a Una story is a different beast to an Anne story. Una likes her loose ends neatly tied and I must tie them for her. I hope is it satisfies you as much as it satisfies her!

I am taking a break from this story for a while, my sincere apologies for keeping you hanging, I promise I will finish it soonish... k