If it was Spring, Bolingbroke didn't know it. The sun shone weakly overhead, a thick mist blanketed the streets, and the Gardner's driver pulled over to ignite the lamps on the Daimler Straight Six. Anne studied the glass of the rear window and drew a line through the condensation. She peered through the thin, clear gap and made out a leafless oak, a boy on a bicycle in a bright yellow cap, and a woman in a magenta sari wheeling a perambulator. Strange, that so much life could fit into so small a space. She brought her mouth to the cold glass and fogged it up once more.
'What are you sighing about?' Royal asked her, patting down dove-grey silk as he searched for his watch. 'Damn this traffic, we're going to be late!'
Anne turned and reached into the pocket of his pinstriped jacket, retrieving a gold time piece. 'You're wearing your pocketless waistcoat, remember?' she said, handing it to him.
It had been the tailor's idea because Royal wanted something that would give him a slimmer silhouette. It was a flattering cut, but–much like her husband–not very practical.
The driver returned breathing clouds into the car and noted Mrs Gardner's hand on his shoulder.
'Take Montrose Ave, Lester, it's a little out of the way but we should at least have a clear run.'
Royal eyed his wife and wondered, not for the first time, how Anne managed to have a mind filled with fancy and good sense. She was quite the enigma. He often described her as such to his colleagues at the Club; it reflected well on his character that he could manage such a woman. For the last few weeks, however, Anne had embodied that word a little too well. The war ending and Dido returning had added much needed spark to their conversation. Wintry nights were warmed up with debates over which recital they would take their daughter to, or what she would study at Redmond. It had all been pleasantly easy until Dido's last letter from France. Since that morning Anne had become unreadable.
He had passed the letter to his wife during breakfast and sat back frowning in his chair. 'Do we know any Blythes?'
Anne bent her head over the pale blue page smothered in their daughter's loopy writing. 'When you say we, Roy, do you mean the Gardner we or the Bolingbroke we?'
'Both, I would have thought. If this chap doesn't run in our circles there's not much future for the two of them, surely...' Royal's voice had trailed off and he observed his wife, who appeared to be reading the same sentence over and over. 'We did know some Blythes, didn't we, duck?'
'Blythe is a common enough name,' Anne said, shortly. 'Would you mind very much if I took this to my study?' she asked, tucking the pages into the envelope.
'Doesn't look like I have much say in the matter–or any matter come to that.' Royal huffed. 'But then what have I always said?' he added, helping himself to another pastry. 'That daughter of ours takes wholly after you.'
'Yes, you do say that,' Anne replied, and left the room.
She had barely closed the heavy mahogany door before falling to the floor. The lilies on her rug blurred and her hands became wet as she rocked back and forth on her knees.
Captain William Blythe.
The words crowded her head, crammed in her mouth, and a silent cry so sharp it felt like she was being sliced open, emerged from her throat. It wasn't until the butler knocked and asked if she preferred to take tea in her study, that Anne realised an hour must have passed. She became aware of her aching wrists, how cold the room was, and moving to the window instructed Morrison to remake the fire and bring her a hot toddy.
'And leave the whiskey here,' she said, staring hard at the view of the garden.
The shrubbery lay under inches of snow. So white it hurt to look at it. So white, when Morrison returned with her drink she could scarcely make out his face.
A month had passed since that morning yet the view was almost the same. The mist was so thick Anne half wished they would have to abandon the journey. Once they crossed the bridge, however, the fog began to lift and the Gardners found themselves on platform three just as the porters were opening the carriage doors of the train.
Anne linked arms with her husband and waded through soldiers and nurses, leaping children and wives crying out, craning her head above the swarm. They heard her first, calling for them both in a low, smoky voice like her Aunt's.
'Mamma! Papa! I'm here!'
And she was. Diana Dorothy Gardner, standing on a battered trunk and waving a lilac cloche.
Royal released his wife and shouldered his way to his daughter's side, swinging her in his arms. Her worn, black boots knocked a cap from a boy's head but before Dido could apologise she found herself being carried along the platform to where the crowds had thinned.
Anne lost sight of them; overwhelmed by the sense she was making her way through a forest at night. She held her arms out in front of her and caught dream-like glimpses of Dido waving madly and kissing her father as he returned what looked like an outsized foxglove over her glossy hair. Anne wished he hadn't. When she finally beheld her daughter she had a powerful urge to strip her of everything–her bulky coat, her close-fitting hat–anything that might get in the way of her touching and seeing and smelling her child.
'Oh Mamma, I've missed you!'
'It's over now, love, it's over...'
Dido closed her eyes and let the scent of lily-of-the-valley and two much missed arms envelope her once more. Mamma was worryingly thin. No doubt her mother would say the same about her. After France–Dido always divided her life into Before and After now–she felt as supple as a whip of willow. Whereas Mamma was as brittle as a bone china cup. Reluctantly, she loosened her hold.
'All right, old thing?'
Anne nodded, cupping her daughter's face in her hands. She had her father's thick lashes and inky hair, her mother's dark grey eyes and her pointed little chin. And there on her nose, a smattering of–
A husky voice called from behind Anne's shoulder and she watched mutely as a scarred, brown hand intruded between them and grabbed her daughter's arm.
'Tash, I couldn't find you. This place is worse than Auchon after fatigues!'
'It's madness, isn't it?' Dido said. 'Introductions will be a bit of a chore in here. What say we meet up at–Papa, is Pacey's still in existence?'
'I should say so,' Royal said, smoothly, 'Kingsport would riot if that place shut down.'
'Ah Roy,' Anne said, signalling from behind a broad, khaki-clad back, 'I thought we were heading straight–'
She didn't finish her sentence because the soldier was bending in close to her daughter's forehead and dropping a kiss on her soft felt hat.
'You go with your folks, I'll meet you there.' He lifted his hand to his cap and gave it a tug. 'Mr Gardner. Mrs Gardner,' he said, then swiftly turned on his heel.
Anne did not see his face for more than a second and she knew.
'Are you truly all right, Mamma?'
'I'm fine, darling–it's this crowd.'
'I can't make out a word you're saying–let's get out of here–oh, I hope we can find a cab!' said Dido, rocking up on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of the man who was striding away.
'We can do far better than that!' said Royal.
He was almost as excited about showing off his new auto as he was about seeing his daughter again. She whistled loudly for what Royal vowed would be the last time, as he offered both ladies an arm. They wove around rucksacks, baskets and dropped umbrellas, and had almost reached the main entrance when Dido brought them to a halt.
'Good gravy! My suitcase, I've left my suitcase on the platform.'
She looked up at her father, who immediately turned to his wife.
'Anne, I wouldn't have the faintest idea where one would find a porter here. I always leave that to Lester.'
'Papa, you are hopeless.' Dido laughed. 'We left our bags by a stand selling roasted nuts.'
Royal stiffened noticeably at the mention of the word "we" and Anne instantly envisaged the tense conversation about to be had in the back of the Daimler. Roy probably had no intention of meeting up with Captain Blythe; it was much more likely that as soon as they got to the car he would order Lester to drive them back to Alderley. This might be avoided if Anne could convince father and daughter to walk to Pacey's. It was only half a mile away, and once inside introductions are bound to go more smoothly. Roy would never risk a scene in public.
'I could hunt out the suitcase for you,' Anne suggested, 'then follow on in the car?'
She hardly expected Roy to agree, and struggled to hide her surprise when he nodded at her sheepishly and whisked their daughter away. For all his fatherly wisdom he could never deny Dido anything. Anne felt guilty for suspecting him, then foolish. As the smell of salted nuts got stronger she realised she forgot to ask Dido what her bag looked like.
Hoping the nut seller might be of some help Anne lined up behind a tall gentleman and waited. The aroma was wonderfully tempting. Her stomach began to protest at being given nothing but tea and toast for days, and she felt about for her coin purse. The girl at the nut stand gave her a blank stare when she asked about Dido's suitcase, followed by a brown paper bag filled with roasted hazelnuts. Anne tore it open, popping a hot, salted kernels into her mouth, and bumped into the chest of the man behind her.
'Oh, I'm sorry–' she mumbled, her tongue almost scorched.
Anne darted to the luggage piled between two iron pillars. There was nothing for it, she was going to have to examine the tags on every one. She stuffed the bag of nuts into her coat and fell to her knees, when a hand came into view holding a smart leather case.
'Were you looking for this, Mrs Gardner?'
Anne straightened slowly and turned to face the man she had collided with. He still had the same lilt in his voice, the same broad shoulders filled out a navy wool coat. Under his hat she detected silvery wings of close cropped curls. And his eyes, those same hazel eyes stared at her, bemusedly.
The nut-meat stuck to the roof of her mouth, she knew she should thank him but she couldn't. The years melted away like mist in the sun. She was forty-two. She was thirty-two. She was twenty-two, standing on the Bright River platform watching the train carry him away for what she thought would be forever.
Without knowing why, with no way of explaining, Anne said to him now what she called to him then.
* Auchon is a village in the Somme. Fatigue duty is the work soldiers do when they are not on the front line, mostly maintenance and digging. After Fatigues they were free to spend the evening as they wished.
Thank you so much for all your reviews, I never expected an AU to be all that popular, I just wanted to play around with an idea that grew not from L.M.M. but from the other amazing writers on this site.