April 1st, 1919
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
"Fingers," announces Ken as he enters the bathroom.
I peer over the edge of the bathtub and see him standing in the doorway, his face hidden by an open book.
"A good morning to you, too," I greet him, deadpan.
Neither of us slept well last night, which is probably the reason why I only awoke this morning when the sun was shining brightly. The first thing I saw upon opening my eyes was the empty side of the bed where Ken had slept, and for a short but horrible moment I feared he might have left. That the news of last night, or else my reaction to it, could have been enough to drive him away. But then I saw the note on the bedside table, assuring me that he'd be back shortly, and could breathe again.
Besides, looking at it in the bright light of day – out of the two of us, I'm far more likely to run. And I can't.
"Good morning, my love," Ken greets back, lowering the book just enough so he can lean forward and give me a kiss.
I can feel his smile against my lips. Perhaps it might yet be a good morning, after all.
"What about fingers?" I enquire, while wiggling all five fingers of my right hand in front of his eyes, splashing tiny droplets of waters on his face.
Ken straightens, quickly saving the book from getting wet, and wipes his face with one sleeve. "It has fingers. The baby," he then elaborates.
I nod. "It sure has. As a matter of fact, it also has toes to go with the fingers," I add. "But how do you know at which stage of development is it right now?"
"I might be pretty clueless about some things, but I can count," Ken informs me drily, raising both eyebrows.
With I smile, I concede his point. Then I lean forward a little to catch a look at the book in his hands. "What are you reading?" I want to know.
For a moment, Ken raises the book to give me a better look, but when I extend a wet hand towards it, he quickly pulls it back again. However, I've already recognised it as a brand-new copy of one of the books I've perused in the British Library.
"Where did you get this?" I enquire, propping up my chin on the edge of the bathtub and watching him pull up a stool from the vanity and sit down.
"I bought it," he answers with a shrug. "That was why I left this morning in the first place. I figured it would be helpful for me not to be totally clueless." He frowns at the book in his hands, adding, "Though some things in here are downright disturbing."
I have to smile at his sceptical expression. "Do us both a favour and skip the chapter about abnormal pregnancies," I ask. "That one is creepy."
Clearly doubtful, Ken looks from me to the book and back again. "But how else am I supposed to know –?" he begins.
"You, not at all," I interrupt him. "I am the nurse and you are clueless, remember? Just leave it to me." The last thing I need is for him to check me for obscure symptoms.
He doesn't look convinced, but doesn't argue either, so I stand up inside the tub and nod towards a pile of towels. "Hand me one of those, please?" I ask. Ken nods quickly, putting the book down and getting up himself. When I climb from the tub, he holds up one of the towels for me to step into, but instead of letting me go after having wrapped it around my body, his arms hold me tight.
"That's something I thought about anyway," he remarks. "You're not only a nurse but a licensed teacher as well. And you, of all people, are worried about not being able to raise a child?"
"It takes more than that," I argue, but lean against him anyway. His arms lightly sway me from side to side.
"Certainly," Ken agrees. "But it's a start. You know what to do when it falls ill, and you know how to teach it things. That's not too bad a start for our child."
Hm. It doesn't even sound that nonsensical, put like that.
The thing is, however, that being a mother always seemed to be something that falls from the sky. As grateful as I am for my own mother, she set the bar pretty high. And to Faith and Nan, too, being a mother seemed to come so easily that I always thought that, if it isn't that way for me as well, I must be unsuitable. That both teacher and nursing training might actually come in handy, is something I've never really considered before.
At any rate, it should be more useful than a college degree in economics and politics and an officer's career, highflying as it might have been.
"And while I watch over the physical wellbeing and the cognitive development of our child – what do you intend to do in the meantime?" I tease Ken, raising both eyebrows high.
He smirks. "I am incredibly well-qualified to teach it a variety of soldiers' songs," he informs me.
No question about what kind of songs he's talking about.
"Don't you dare!" I warn when he takes a deep breath, obviously to offer me a taste of his repertoire. His smirk widens.
"You said yourself that it can't hear us yet," he reminds me, visibly amused.
"I said that I don't know," I correct. "And I'm not going to risk it."
Instead of answering, Ken surprises me by leaning down and kissing me sweetly.
"See?" he remarks quietly, nudging my nose with his own. "You've already started looking out for it."
Surprised, I look at him while he draws back a little. He meets my gaze with a smile.
Might he be right? Have I, quite by instinct, already started taking care of this child?
"Only it won't really do any good, will it? We both know that we can't protect it from the world," I remind him of the question that he didn't answer last night.
For we both know that this world can be a cruel, even relentless place. And that nothing and no one can offer protection from it.
"Maybe not," Ken concedes thoughtfully. "But that doesn't mean we're powerless."
Feeling powerless was one of the most prevalent of my emotions in the past year. I can't imagine it was much different for him.
"We already decided to love it, didn't we?" Ken continues, and it would be a rhetorical question but for the tiny flicker of uncertainty on his eyes.
I nod, silent.
"Good. Then we'll make sure that it knows that. That it will never have cause to doubt it. We won't always be able to protect it, much as we may try. But we can teach it to look after itself. And we can make sure that it knows everything it needs to know and, more importantly, that it believes in itself and that it can achieve anything it wants to," Ken adds, and it sounds almost like a vow.
For a moment, I consider his words while I curl myself closer to him. "I'd still prefer to be able to protect it always," I remark, but there's no insistence behind my words. He isn't responsible for this world any more than I am.
"I know," Ken sighs. "Me, too. But you can't protect anyone from the world out there. You can only support them while they do it themselves."
And instinctively, I know that he means me, and Persis as well. He couldn't protect either of us from the burden of war, but he was always ready to share that burden, if at all possible. Maybe that's the best one can do.
I slide my hands over his shoulders, stand on my tiptoes and kiss him. Immediately, his arms close tighter around me and it's quite evident that for now, the complicated discussions are over.
"When are we meeting Persis again?" I murmur against his lips while my towel slips to the floor.
"Not before midday," is his answer but he sounds distracted as he pushes my still wet hair behind my ears with great concentration.
With a humming sound, I acknowledge that piece of information, while my fingers already busy themselves with his shirt buttons. Until, without warning, there's a jolt going through Ken's body and he raises his head. He doesn't let go, but his sudden change in demeanour is enough to make my fingers still for the time being.
"What's the matter?" I ask quietly.
Frowning, he considers me. "Is this… safe?" he asks, voice almost wary.
If it is…?
I have to suppress the smile threatening to find its way to my lips. "What does your clever book say on the matter?" I ask back instead.
He, however, doesn't even seem to realise that I am teasing him, for the frown immediately deepens and he tries to turn around towards his book. "I don't know…" he murmurs. "I didn't read anything about it, but there might be… I just need to have another look…"
"You have to do nothing of the sort," I interrupt, now unable to fight the smile. With one hand at his chin, I turn his face back around so that he has to look at me.
"But –" he begins, his expression still deeply sceptical.
Putting a finger to his lips, I silence him. "No but. I am a nurse and you are clueless. Did you already forget about that?" I ask him, arching up an eyebrow.
For several moments, Ken just looks at me silently, but then his forehead becomes smooth again. "You are the expert," he replies with a tiny shrug and allows me to pull him back into a kiss.
We are only just in time for our meeting with Persis.
She is already waiting in the hotel lobby when we come down, sitting in an armchair and graciously watching a footman serve her tea. She looks very elegant and ladylike, or at least she does until she sees us and jumps to her feet so quickly that the poor footman takes a surprised step backwards, spilling the tea.
Persis doesn't give him another glance. Instead, she hurries towards us, a wide smile on her face, and throws her arms around Ken without further ado. I see him hug her back and hold her close, before I turn away to give them a moment. They haven't seen each other in months, after all.
Instead, I let my gaze wander over the elegantly furnished lobby. It's not very busy, with just a few guests present at this time of the day. The poor footman is just mopping up the spilled tea and when our gazes meet, I smile apologetically.
Next to me, I notice a movement and turn my head back. Ken has taken a step back, holding Persis by the shoulders and giving her a critical once-over. Then he frowns, obviously confused by something.
"Pink?" he asks, incredulous, his gaze fixed on her uniform.
For a second, Persis doesn't move, then she sighs, clearly frustrated. "Goodness, you two deserve each other!" she declares, throwing both hands in the air in what is rather a theatrical manner, and dislodging Ken's hold on her in the process.
He looks at me quizzically, obviously searching for an explanation for Persis's exclamation, but before I can even begin on one, she has already turned towards me. Quickly, she kisses me on both cheeks, in a way that she has taken to doing recently and which she has probably first seen in France.
"Come on, I am hungry," she announces, slipping her arm through mine and pulling me into the direction of the dining room.
At Ken, she only directs an unconcerned "Are you coming?" over her shoulder. When I look back at him as well, I can see him following us, shaking his head slightly, obviously amused.
With typical effrontery, Persis organises one of the best tables for us, right next to a big window with a lovely look at the hotel garden. She plops down on one of the chairs and watches with obvious interest as Ken pulls out another chair for me.
"What's the matter?" I ask after having sat down as well.
Persis cocks her head to the side. "Up until now, I had to imagine the two of you together. It's interesting to finally see it for real," she explains and wrinkles her nose in thought.
I blink, surprised. I've come to care for both of them so much that I never even considered that this is the first time we're all three of us together like this. At least the first time since it matters.
"And, what's the verdict?" Ken asks easily. He has leaned back, one arm extending along the backrest of my chair.
For a moment, Persis's eyes narrow, before her expression clears and she nods firmly. "Yes. It fits," she announces, and her smile is catching.
Someone clearing their throat prevents Ken and me from answering. Instead, we both look up at the waiter who had just appeared at our table. "What may I offer you, Ma'am?" he enquires, looking directly at me.
I look back at him, feeling unsure. Ken's arm slung over my backrest, though probably a bit too casual for this environment, has obviously made me identifiable as the married woman at this table. Apparently, the waiter took this to mean that it is only good and proper to ask for my wishes first. It's just that I have no idea at all what I am supposed to answer. I have no experience with the etiquette in hotels as posh as this one.
"We'll have whatever the chef recommends," Persis choses that moment to interject from her side of the table.
Alarmed, I turn towards Ken. For me, exhaustion might have been much worse than nausea and I am lucky not to have had even one day as wretched as some of our patients back in Montreal. Still, for a few months now, I've been unable to eat anything that ever was able to swim. I don't even do very well with smelling it.
How much of what I'm hurriedly trying to communicate to him with my eyes Ken really understands, I can't tell, but he does place a calming hand on my arm and turns to the waiter. "What does the chef recommend?" he asks.
Persis rolls her eyes at him elongating the process of ordering needlessly, but the waiter nods stiffly. "For a starter, we recommend a cock-a-leekie soup, followed by a main dish of grilled mutton chops with baked potatoes, and custard pudding for dessert," he recites.
Ken looks at me questioningly and I give the tiniest of nods. At the very least, nothing of what the waiter listed just there, ever had fins.
With a nod at the waiter, Ken confirms the suggested order, before deciding to leave the choice of wine to the sommelier. The waiter melts into the background with a respectful "Very well, Sir."
Through it all, Persis is watching us quite benevolently and, the moment the waiter is turned, she takes up the thread of our earlier conversation again. "I really think I could get used to this," she declares with an elaborate gesture towards Ken and me.
He raises an eyebrow. "I hardly think there is any other option for you," he informs her drily.
"I could move away from Toronto. If I do that, I would not have to get used to the sight," Persis immediately responds, but I can see her fighting down a smile.
Ken grins, obviously unmoved. "You could," he concedes. "But Toronto has, one way or another, gotten used to you by now. I don't know how well the rest of the world would deal with your continued presence."
The starched and elaborately folded napkin Persis throws at him, he catches easily. Persis grimaces and he laughs.
I, however, watch both of them thoughtfully. Each on their own, I know well, but I've never seen them together this way, or at least not consciously. There's a lightness in the way they act around each other, a deep trust that transcends the playful teasing. They have such an obvious bond that I instinctively realise how much easier Persis made it for us by deciding to like me. We would have made our marriage work without her blessing, no doubt about it, but it's much easier having it.
Ken is just throwing the napkin back, but Persis dodges it quickly so that it falls to the floor behind her. I quickly cast a look around, but thankfully, no one seems to have noticed. Quite likely I am the only person at this table at all concerned by the fact that we are in a very posh restaurant right now.
"Are you coming back to Toronto then, little sister?" Ken asks now, obviously sincerely curious.
For a moment, she glares at him – in all likelihood because of the address as little sister – but then Persis, too, becomes serious. "Certainly, at first. I want to see Mum and Dad again and get to know Selina's baby and just do nothing at all for a couple of weeks," she answers slowly.
"And afterwards? What plans do you have for the world?" Ken asks, his tone both affectionate and indulgent in view of the often-elaborate plans that have been known to take form in his sister's mind.
Persis turns her head away and I immediately know that something's the matter. Normally, Persis almost always holds eye contact. If she looks away, there's a reason for that.
But before she gets a chance to elaborate, the waiter returns with the recommended wine. He pours some for Persis, while Ken and I stick to water. (Back in Montreal, we told too many mothers-to-be to steer clear of alcohol for me to have forgotten the lesson.)
By the time the waiter leaves again, Persis has managed to compose herself. She is looking directly at Ken now, her chin tilted forward. He doesn't miss the change in her expression either and quizzically tilts his head to the side. Beneath the table, I reach for his hand.
"Tim and I have decided that we'd like to travel a bit," Persis remarks, her voice challenging and firm and yet, a little vulnerable.
Ken slowly lets go of a breath. "Tim," he repeats. Neither his tone nor his expression gives away what he's thinking.
Persis sighs, frustrated. "Don't do that. I told you about Tim. He is a friend!" she insists. When Ken only narrows his eyes slightly in response, she turns to me for help. "Rilla tell him that Tim is just a friend. And that he will never be anything more than that."
"Tim is just a friend and will never be anything more than that," I parrot helpfully. I suppress my smile, but Ken must have seen enough mirth in my eyes to turn thoughtful.
He looks from me to Persis and back again. When our eyes meet, I can see thoughtfulness slowly give way to understanding. For the fraction of a second, he raises an eyebrow in question. I confirm with the tiniest of nods.
The frown disappears from his face. "Alright, so he's a friend," he remarks matter-of-factly and hints at a shrug. The reasons why Tim won't ever be more than a friend don't seem to interest him all that much and I feel belated satisfaction at having been right to defend him in front of Shirley.
Still, a promise is a promise.
"But even with him being just a friend," Ken adds, "You won't be able to convince the world out there of it. And you should know yourself what they're going to be saying about a young, unmarried woman travelling with a man who's no relation of hers."
He doesn't even say it unkindly, but Persis still glares at him quite spectacularly. "So, what? We'll say he's my cousin or something. And besides, we don't intend to travel the kind of countries where people are much worried about such antiquated rules," she informs him snippily.
"Where do you want to travel?" I quickly interject in an attempt to get her to calm down a little.
"South America. Asia. Africa," answers Persis with a sweep of her arm. "The world is so much bigger than just North America and Europe and it's time for people to realise that. We want to show them how beautiful the world can be. Tim takes amazing pictures on his camera and I can write reports about our travels. Even four years of studies didn't make a concert pianist out of me, I know that very well, but I can write!"
Her rebellious eyes find Ken. He returns her gaze, very composed, and it seems to make her even angrier. "Come on, say something!" she demands. "Tell me that it's a foolish idea and much too dangerous and that no one is going to read it anyway. Say it!" Outwardly, she is defiant and stubborn, but her eyes look a little misty to me. And if I see it, surely Ken must as well?
A moment passes before – "I would read it." His voice is very calm, but there's a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Persis just sits there, as if struck by thunder. The fight leaves her in one breath as she slumps down a little. Beneath the table, Ken squeezes my hand and I know what he's thinking.
We can't protect them. We can only be there to support them as they find their own way.
"So, you don't think it's a foolish idea?" asks Persis and suddenly, she sounds small.
"I think it's a completely foolish idea," Ken corrects, looking at her tenderly. "But if anyone can pull it off, it's you."
For a second, Persis just stares at him, opening and closing her mouth several times without getting out one word. Obviously put out at having been rendered speechless, she lets herself fall backwards in her chair and pouts. Ken gives me a conspiratorial grin and I smile back.
"But you do intend to come back sometimes between your travels, do you?" he asks. "We can't have you forget your family, after all." For a fraction of a second, his loving gaze brushes me, before he turns back to his sister.
And I have no idea what it is – even more so, as he certainly didn't intend to let her know quite yet – but something in his words or in his expression makes Persis sit up abruptly. With wide eyes, she looks from him to me, before a smile spreads over his face.
"Really? Oh, I am so happy for you!" she declares while jumping up so quickly that her chair falls backwards to the floor. She rounds the table – almost running into the disapproving waiter, on whose tray the soup sloshes dangerously – and I get up quite automatically. Not even a second later, she throws both arms around my neck and holds me tight.
I return the hug, turning my head to the side so that I won't have to look at anyone. For Ken's sureness might have helped a little against my uncertainty, but Persis's enthusiasm, as heartfelt and sincere as it is, feels like a blow.
It's the kind of unconditional happiness I should be feeling and yet, for some reason, don't seem to be able to feel. And I wonder if I ever will.
The title of this chapter is taken from the song 'Auld land syne' from 1788 (lyrics taken from a poem by Robert Burns (itself probably inspired by an earlier song by James Watson), music as per a Scottish folk song (possibly 'The Miller's wedding')).