Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Thomas Hardy, The Voice
The tenuous Larkrise routine fractures on a bruise-blue autumn evening when the shadows arch like cats against the windows. As they empurple the horizon and turn the windows to mirrors, the Investigateers talk murder. Una sticks as much of it as she can, but patience fractures when Jem says of Abelard Graham, who was found buried up to his waist way out in the woods that surround the old graveyard, 'I think he starved to death.'
Images, skeletal-slender and gravid with hunger slink across Una's periphery vision. She pictures Nellie's multilingual medical journal. Malnutrition. Malnutrition. Malnutrition.
You mean, she wants to demand of this intelligent man opposite her, you don't know? Then there's the usual stab of relief that perhaps Jem doesn't know and neither does Faith, and Una simply marshals Robin upstairs for her bath.
They still bathe together, by accident, rather than design. In Raffles it was soothing, never mind familiar to climb two or three into one of the outsized baths. In Kingsport, Robin has a knack for getting water everywhere outside the bath – floor, mat, Una's dress – and it's less work all round if Una climbs in with her.
She is about to do this when Faith…Hisses is perhaps the best word for it. She doesn't scream. Faith Meredith never screams, not even in terror and she's no different as Faith Blythe. Una hears the whistle-sucking inhalation of astonishment anyway. She further realizes this is her fault. Una hears Faith's knock, of course she does. But Faith is her sister, and the camp did away with privacy first and foremost. Fourth class women didn't need it. Besides, they've done each other's buttons for years. Of course, back in the days of the Harbour Light Una had never split her back on fence wire or been brutalized by guards. So, perhaps she should anticipate the sudden hissing inhalation from Faith. But she doesn't and she startles.
Robin jumps at the noise. Cue water splashing wide across the room. It catches the front of Una's dress, and slips warm and damp down her front, growing cool against her skin. Una rebuttons her dress and says to Faith, 'All right?'
'Are you?' says Faith.
Una turns and looks at Faith. Her gold-caramel eyes are wide, the towel she meant to bring in for Robin little more than a terrycloth heap at her feet. And there, not lurking but foremost in those wide, wide eyes like caramel moons, terror and unbelief.
'I'm fine,' says Una. She sits down on the lip of the tub and lightly splashes Robin with water.
'Fine,' Faith says. Blinks. 'Obviously. Una, what – forgive me –what the bloody hell happened?' She gestures at the place where Una's back was. Una has no idea what it looks like, the tracery of various lacerations in composite states of healing. But she feels every inch of them. They prickle and shimmer with unease and scrutiny, grow tensile and corded as her posture stiffens. Una says with a smile, 'I really couldn't tell you.'
Faith drops down onto a hamper and sits there, incredulous. Una sees this in her posture, the way her eyes widen further with each passing second. The rising steam from the bath begins, mercifully to re-pink Faith's cheeks. Una would keep her that way.
'Not now,' she says, and inclines her head towards Robin. She needn't have bothered. Sitting in the soapy water, Robin says helpfully, 'That's from the men at camp. They did it to everyone but especially Mama, because she was in charge. Sometimes they hung people's hands from the trees, and sometimes they made them balance logs overhead, and once they kicked Auntie Emmy in the ribs so hard they broke and Auntie Joan swore…'
On the hamper Faith gapes, which is wrong; Faith should never be speechless.
'Hush, little bird,' says Una and soaps of Robin's hair with Larkrise's practical, unscented soap. She makes mountains of it on Robin's shoulders and Robin laughs and squeals. Puck used to do this for Iris, and she squealed too. They called the game Snowman.
'Still say not now, eh?' says Faith and attempts a smile. It falls short.
'Yes,' says Una. Her bird might be inured to violence – all the camp children were – but that's no reason to dredge it up now.
Finally, Robin scrambles, naked and unabashed, out of the water and into the generous blue towel Una holds open for her. She bundles Robin into what Carl called cigar wraps. Iris adored them. Robin does, too. She giggles as Una swoops her, half-swaddled in terrycloth, into her arms and carries her into the bedroom.
More nighttime ritual follows, and Faith with it. Robin scarpers, flannel-clad, under the coverlet and gestures Una onto the bed next to her. Una sits and reaches for Castle of Adventure, deftly thumbing her way to the page where a red, silk-embroidered bookmark keeps their place. Una made it for Li for some anniversary occasion or other. It's here now not as an in memoriam but a reminder to find Li. And Iris. And Carl.
Faith hovers uneasily by the hulking shadow of the dresser. 'You'll like Dina Mannering,' Una says to her. 'Sit and listen.'
Faith settles, still uneasily, on the nearby rocker. One day far too soon they will run out of Adventure Books – Robin's name for them – and Una has no idea what to do when that happens. Scrabble for the next nearest book, presumably. But for now, the Mannerings and Trents are still adventuring, still stuck in the castle tower where the smugglers left them.
It's Bill Smuggs to the rescue tonight, and Robin sits to rigid attention. Una suspects that Bill is Robin's first hero, and she wishes Elise could see it. Chapter over, Una reaches for and sings first Li's North Cradle Song, because dangerous as it was in camp, Una needed the music to keep Li close. These days its ritual. The Chinese is unwieldy – Una never had Faith's gift with languages – but she sings it anyway. Then, because it was the only lullaby Elise knew, Una sings, Oh the oak, and the ash, and the bonny ivy tree, they flourish at home in my own country…
Poor Elise, never did come home. She languished in Singapore with her baby, until she was in the middle of a Japanese prison camp with no chance of leaving. It's enough to make anyone's heart ache. Una smooths Robin's hair and sings on, not as Elise sang, half-untrained and breathless, because Una learns music like bible verses. It goes soul-deep and it sticks there, bubbling up when she needs it. Then she kisses Robin as Cecilia Meredith kissed her children – seven times for luck and safety. Eyes, nose, cheeks and forehead.
In the hall, Faith pounces, cat-lithe.
'Right,' she says. 'Now, what in the name of God happened to you over there? You looked at me and said no one had touched you.'
'No one has,' says Una. 'Not the way you meant.'
'Well, something,' says Faith, 'did that.' She gestures half-wild at Una's water-damp dress. 'And Robin seems to think it's because you agreed to lead those other people?'
Una hums. She says, 'I was responsible for whatever they did wrong. That was how the Commandant saw it. And I'd rather me than Emily or the other young people.'
Faith makes the kind of oblique, unparsable noise typical of the dubious. I wouldn't the noise says. No, well. Emily and the others weren't better than family to Faith. Una can't say that.
'I thought you had your share of prisoners of war?' asks Una.
'Why,' says Faith, 'do you think I'm asking? The world has more sharp edges sometimes than there are ways from Sunday. You were supposed to know none of them. All the prisoners I saw and none of them was my sister.' She sounds like a stricken deer, which is bizarre, because stricken deer was Elise English's stunt, and anyone less like Elise than Faith…Una tries to allow for the difference between Faith's anonymous prisoners of war and herself. It's harder than it should be. Because of Faith's eyes, Una thinks. That wide, horrified look that Una tries so hard never to see there and cannot miss now.
'It wasn't all other people's misdemeanours,' says Una. 'Robin was young, and needed food. It wasn't always easy to get.'
'Obviously,' says Faith. 'And Robin's mother wasn't bargaining for all this stuff because…?'
It's no good. There is no way to tell the story kindly. The hallway is too narrow. The walls rise up to encircle Una. The only obvious point of egress is past Faith in her current wildcat mood, or retreat into Robin's room. Neither is tenable. Una presses divot-riddled fingers to her temples and says from behind them, 'By the time I was wrangling food for Robin, Elise English was sick with cerebral malaria.'
She doesn't linger over this. Faith is a doctor. Una has every confidence Faith can paint her own picture. The fact that she proceeds to do this is apparent to Una in the widening of those stricken-deer eyes and the barricading of Faith's chest with her crossed arms. She leans suddenly, heavily against one of the looming walls.
'Una,' Faith says, 'Una, I wish I'd known. I wish – '
'Never mind,' says Una. She kisses Faith's moon-pale cheek. 'I'm here now. It's all right.' There was nothing you could have done goes unsaid. It seems kinder not to.
'This is the wrong way round,' says Faith. 'I should be looking after you.'
Una reaches for and squeezes Faith's shoulders. She breathes steadily, deeply, through her nose, counting first to ten, then to twenty before exhaling. Not long ago, Judith Carlisle had looked up from her sewing and said to Una in the vestry of St Margaret's, 'Faith remembers a very different sister.' She was wiser than she knew.
'I'm all right,' says Una to her sister. 'Promise.'
'Patently untrue,' says Faith. She gestures again towards Una's back. Under the deep, iris-blue of her water-damp clothes, Una's skin prickles. Part frustration, part the unwanted attention.
'That's nothing,' says Una, meaning it. She thinks and then forcibly dismisses the memory of Elise English in her delirium throes, her calloused dancer's feet kicking their war with the blankets and makeshift mosquito nets. 'I survived, didn't I?'
Faith says nothing, so Una joins her leaning against the wall, shoulders brushing. 'If Robin had died,' she says, whisper-soft, 'it would have been so much worse, Faith. For all of us, but me particularly. I lived for her. I had to.'
Silence, more impregnable than Singapore ever was. Finally, Faith closes the space between them and kisses Una's cheek goodnight. Faith has her family to see to; They're downstairs talking murder and missing her opinion. Una stays leaning against the wall, listening to the sleepy susurration of Robin's breathing.
When Una comes back downstairs, the Investigateers are still in session. Faith, Jem, Shirley, Mara, the various Carlisles and Lovalls. Una slips out into the cool of the evening and leaves them as they are, safe, comfortable, discussing Abelard Graham's death by maybe-starvation.
Una needs escape and she knows it, but there aren't many places to go. The old custom of leaving churches unlocked of an evening died out so long ago Anthony Trollope mourned it. Even if it hadn't, Jonas Blake's church no longer exists, and he long since chose Christ over earth. As it should be. Naomi Blake is in the Glen, Ruthie in Bolingbrook.
But Jonas Blake's grave is still there and makes a destination. How often in life did Una sit on the floor of Rev. Blake's parlour sorting charitable offerings and talking over the thorny problems of the universe?
She is waylaid in the going by Mr. Swallow, who flashes into her periphery white poppy first, the brilliant white of it stark against the dying sun.
'Robin all right?' he says by way of salutation. This is how Una registers that the after-effects of discussing encamped life must still be somehow visible in her appearance. No wonder Faith was unconvinced.
'Robin,' Una says, 'is absolutely fine.'
'Ah,' he says, crooking his arm and securing Una's within it. 'Robin's mother then. Consul still impossible? Or what's-his-name – the awful one in Singapore?'
'Henderson,' says Una. 'For a novelty, neither of them is at issue. Ask me again tomorrow.'
They turn past the hundred-year-ruin of Old St John's church, its foundation grown green with moss and lichens, stones tending towards bronze in the setting sun. Half a foot away and over the lip of a cliff-edge the sea roils, grey white and frothing. Hardy would say it dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain, Una thinks, obliquely.
The half-light of the evening makes everything look alien, all golden-birch edges and witch-light. Or – and there's Hardy again – like a wild, weird western shore. This is why Una supposes, it takes as long as it does to register they are walking towards the bookshop, and that probably Aunt Martha has Rules about this sort of thing. But that was a lifetime ago, and Una forgets whatever strictures these were, much less how to enforce them.
Her hesitation registers anyway, because they stop at the exterior stairs and Mr. Swallow says, 'Look at it this way, conjuring you a cup of tea is far less of an imposition than will be standing here in the gathering gloom parsing the nature of the universe.'
There's enough sense in this as to persuade Una to ignore the ghost of Aunt Martha temporarily. 'Besides,' says Mr. Swallow as they ascend the stairs, 'I have a favour to ask, and I'll feel better about asking if I'm reciprocally making myself useful.'
'Is it reciprocal if I haven't yet agreed to anything?' asks Una, which garners rich, warm laughter from her companion.
'Possibly not. Incidentally, if not the consulate, what am I ministering to?'
'Try half an hour's chat that doesn't involve murder, will you?'
Mr. Swallow grimaces sympathy. He says, 'It's Geordie Carlisle that runs that station house, isn't it?'
'Yes, that's right.'
'Never did know when to put a thing to bed, that one,' he says. 'Probably why he was always so good at – '
It's an odd place to stop, given that Una knows as well as anyone else in Kingsport that Geordie Carlisle is the station house's most competent Superintendent in years. If it's meant to be a secret it's not a well-kept one. Mind, it's not that sort of pause. Una waits, parsing the lacuna ineffectually.
Making no headway, her focus shifts to the architectural afterthought that is the room they now stand in. Her first thought, surveying it, is that it doesn't look lived in. Not that there is no clutter, because Frenny Razdan was uncluttered, and her kitchen was still distinctively hers. This is different. It is completely anonymous. Even the books knocking leathery elbows against the ghost of a bookshelf are coverless. There is nothing to distinguish them from a window display. The shelf has more character, stretching crookedly across the haphazard gamut from one end of the wall to the other. It is altogether bizarre.
Two notable exceptions: a battered radio that crackles the gypsy jazz of How High the Moon, and an exposed copy of yesterday's paper featuring an incomplete crossword. The cryptic type that Una can't get to grips with but her father enjoyed.
There's only so long Una can stand there, politely curious, so she appropriates the edge of a stiff-backed chair with echoes of the ACS staff room about it.
'That,' he warns her, 'is not at all comfortable. The thing at the back finds your spine.'
'I remember the type,' says Una, not moving.
Una watches as he moves easily through the room, reaching for things as he goes. Coasters, that thick white china typical of churches with more outreach than income, chipped ceramic teapot. So, there are things in this oddly anonymous home of Mr. Swallow's. Just not out in the open. Things not the radio, now signing,
Somewhere there's music
How faint the tune
Somewhere there's heaven,
How high the moon…
It moves at an impossible clip. Una thinks this and accepts the teacup passed to her. It is thick, white and unremarkable, and reminiscent of Patterson St. Una must say this last, because over the boiling of the kettle on its gas ring, Mr. Swallow grins and says, 'One of those, were you?'
'As opposed to dyed in the wool Hope Park and Martyrs? That will be on your calling card, I take it.'
Opposite Una, he holds up both hands. 'Guilty as charged. When not away doing business with men about dogs.'
Again that odd, spring-coiled lacuna. Una gets the distinct sense they are having a conversation with half the pertinent information in a lockbox.
'Mind you,' he says now, brandishing the chipped teapot like a baton, 'That would account for your turn with the Anglo-Chinese School. All those everlasting outreaches. Do I pour out now?'
'No,' says Una and commandeers the teapot. Mr. Swallow takes this with good grace. He twists his teacup counter-clockwise in its saucer and says, 'You managed all that ACS minutiae, didn't you?'
'Years ago,' says Una with emphasis.
'No matter,' Mr. Swallow says. Una pours the tea. 'Thank you. What I wanted to ask – as you're here more than you're not, is would you mind managing that bookshop down there sometimes? Work – other work, obviously – sometimes calls me away, and I never know how long for. A terrible business model for the bookshop, as you'll appreciate, however long ago all that ACS stuff was. And it strikes me that your particular terrifying efficiency might be useful.'
It wouldn't be at all like the Anglo-Chinese School, Una thinks. Neither does it sound anything like routine. But Una needs a project. Jonas Blake, used to extemporize among the clutter of half-sorted charity appeals about praying by doing. It always seemed his providence more than Una's. What the aftermath of Singapore brings home is that prayer by doing is as much hers at it ever was Rev. Jonas Blake's. Strange, improbable thought, because in her girlhood it was Faith everyone said couldn't sit still. It was the Glen's social distinction between Meredith sisters. Now Una thinks, she was no better at inactivity than Faith. She only found outlets for it that did not involve pig-riding. Brushing Father's clothes, Rilla's Junior Reds, the Anglo-Chinese School…And here is an opportunity extended by a friend to get out from under the feet of Larkrise and its dachshunds, and perhaps not murder her sister and family, thereby putting Geordie Carlisle out of associates.
In the event what she says is, 'It will spoil Cressida's plans to keep Robin and I in pocket money until the sun runs cold, but that will be half the fun.'
Anywhere else, this would necessitate an explanation of who and what a Cressida is. Faith can never remember which of Una's fellow internees is which. But Una has long-since sketched the camp women for Mr. Swallow, somewhere between discussions of white poppies and lashings of ginger beer.
'Of course,' he says apologetically, 'it would be nothing like mission work before.'
'How does it go?' asks Una,
'Woman much missed how you call to me call to me
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one that was all to me…'
'Even to the original air blue gown. Apt as it turns out.' Another gesture, this one reminding Una that her white poppy is today fastened to iris-blue fabric. He leaves his place on the settle opposite to pad across the room to the bookshelf. As far as Una can tell he sticks his hand into the thing haphazardly, but obviously comes up with what he wants, because he crows triumph as he hands Una copy of Hardy's poems to his dead Emma.
'As a diversion from Investigateers,' he says.