Cressida thinks she might have a trace on Elise English's family at long last and minces exactly no words in her opinion that this is unnecessary, a waste of time and a promise made to a madwoman. Maybe it's all of that, but Una is determined to at least meet these people who knew Elise. If nothing else, they deserve to know what happened. Not that Elise died of malaria, delirious and addle-brained, because no one deserves that knowledge, and anyway, there is Una and the ghost of Nellie to bear witness. But to know what became of their daughter or niece or great-niece…That she was in Singapore, that she had a daughter, that mother and daughter were loved…Una can tell them that much.
Unsurprising then, that the vexed quandary of Robin's history arises that autumn. Lupins and lady's slippers give way to catkin rains and soft-burred pussy-willow. Robin and Isobel seize the shortening daylight in both hands and caper with Kiki through the woods and along rivers inventing adventures to rival Blyton.
It's not only the girls who go walking. As the days draw in, Una and Martin Swallow walk through the harbour and past the ruin of Old St John's. This evening the sun is halfway down the horizon and eeling past the brim of Una's hat and into her eyes as they cross the ruin. The conversation winds windchime-coy around the old promise to trace Una's family, Robin, and around Martin's latest excursion to God-knows-where, purpose indeterminate.
As they walk by the ruin of Old St John's, awash in apricot and purple light, Martin makes noises about having to go to ground again soon. This means more bookshop work for Una. Robin too; she should probably be in school these days, but Una holds off, wanting to prolong an already foreshortened childhood by as many years as possible. The vaguery of the bookshop and the fading bruise remind Una of Robin on a different summer day, years ago now. Do you think…
Una squints into the sun and says, 'You've never once explained how that bookshop of yours fits in with all these jaunts to elsewhere. If I asked, I wouldn't get a straight answer, would I? You couldn't give me one.'
Martin tilts his head and grins gnomically, conceding the point. Unexpectedly, he says, 'Would I get one about Robin?'
At his elbow Una almost suppresses startlement. For months she waited for Ernest Henderson to ask exactly this, and he didn't. No one official did. There was never a contingency plan for what to tell friends acquired in the aftermath of Singapore. Still less of a plan for what to say when ambushed with this sort of question of an evening walk through the old Kingsport waterfront. Nothing, says Una's internal Bernice. Not a bloody word, Miss Meredith, that's what Bernice would say. If only it were that easy. The hand not threaded through the crook of a familiar elbow goes to Una's fish, fingering the spiked prongs of their tails. I went into a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…Ridiculous, of course, to be nervous of what a friend of several years standing can possibly say on the subject. But it's Robin and Una swore once to Elise English she would keep their girl safe.
Exasperatingly, Bernice, internalized or not, isn't wrong. Una should say nothing except perhaps to concede Robin's paperwork is in order. This is perfectly true. What she says is, 'Ernest Henderson seemed to think we had the same eyes.'
She says it with laughter to her voice because it is patently nonsense. She is unprepared when Martin says, 'You do. At the risk of agreeing with the inept Henderson of Raffles.'
There is no laughter there, which startles Una more than the original question. The world veers sudden and sharp off it's axis and leaves her dizzy. They do not do this – talk like this. The sensation is of being asked to play five in the time of one. Also as if she has swallowed a kaleidoscope of butterflies. They beat imperfect time against her ribs in five in the time of one.
'Not the colour,' Martin says. 'It's a look you have. As if there are worlds within worlds. Like irised rain.'
Fine-wrought silence except for the lapping of the waves, plash-plash, ebbing and flowing in cradle-song rhythm. The racing, unsettling sensation of butterflies playing five in the time of one does not abate until Martin says, 'I'm right, aren't I? About Robin being more Trent than Mannering? They were the other children with notably green eyes.'
As inquiries into Robin's status as Una's natural or adoptive daughter go, this one is so oblique as to be obtuse to anyone not fluent in Adventure Books. Most people, it must be said, are not. Una wouldn't be, but for Robin and the man at her elbow. Una's hand continues worrying her fish anyway.
'That's right,' Una says, and inclines her head in acknowledgement. 'Though I don't recall Allie Mannering distinguishes between the Trents and her children.'
'Nor do you,' he says, and catches at the fish-worrying hand, grazing her knuckles with a thumb. 'That's not what made me ask. Stop worrying on my account'
Relief is a potent, heady thing. It assails Una with the brute force of a freight train, and her breath slips away in a rush. It leaves her dizzy again and the butterflies beating faster than ever against her ribs. Forget five in the time of one; They have segued into the kind of rapid-fire accelerando that not even gypsy jazz can equal.
Somehow Una finds words to ask, 'What made you think of it?'
Martin smiles and says, 'One of Robin's parents was au fait with heights and it manifestly isn't her mother. You go entirely too stiff watching her.'
'That leaves a whole other familial arm for you,' says Una, and his smile chases from eyes down to lips and blossoms into outright laughter.
'And that's the other thing. All that tangle of family of yours, the rest of Robin's has never once come up. Call it a notable omission.'
It is at that. If Una wanted to – and she doesn't, not here, not now – she could conjure any number of ghosts to infill that gap. Walter, Percival Curtis, some shade in the shape of Li, even Bernice's Robert, she's heard that much about him. When organizing the upcoming school year for Robin, Una does do this. But the prospect of doing that here and to this man is a still, unquiet thing that rattles caged and hummingbird-frenetic around Una's brain, so she refrains.
'It wouldn't have,' she says. 'It's always been Robin and I – and the women we were encamped with.'
'And your share of ghosts, I shouldn't wonder,' he says and taps the lapis-blue of Li's ring. 'That's also in your eyes. And in your poppy.' Una hums uncommunicative agreement, glad when an inquisition doesn't ensue.
'People forget,' says Martin, 'that pauses talk.'
'Why do you think I'm asking about that bookshop?' says Una, and there's a smile in the tracery of her voice. 'You off adventuring was Robin's idea. She would be delighted to be right.'
'I haven't said she is.'
'No,' says Una. 'But she is. As long as we're talking Adventure books, I expect you're quite glad you never tried to persuade her you were a bird watcher.'
The laughter this engenders is hearty and candleflame-warm.
'Extremely glad. You won't tell her, I take it?'
''Not unless you want half of Kingsport to know by morning,' she says and smiles.
Worthwhile Folly, S. England, 1949
You are coming for Christmas. Joan joins me in insisting. Before you start, Bernice and the others are getting the same letter. You particularly have to come because I have had a breakthrough with Robin and it is the least you can do after the blood, sweat and tears I have expended on that child. (Joan does not second that, but only because that ruddy new job prevents her spending equal amounts of time searching and that's a fact. Try the Church Times you said! Ha!)
(Unrelated thought: Joan does second me asking when you and the bookseller got on Christian name terms. Expect Robin has opinions. God knows we do. Expect more on same from Joan next letter.)
Enclosing the relevant communique, so you can see what I mean about a breakthrough, though you know what I think about the whole thing. If Elise English wanted anyone else to have that girl, she would never have made you swear that oath in the first place and nothing you can say will persuade me otherwise. Christmas. This year. Tickets enclosed.
Trust Cressida. And Joan, come to that. Una rolls her eyes and Cressida's battered letter paper. Smiles, too, because if Li were here, she would doubtless join in with their teasing. Faith certainly does. Una is unsurprised to find two tickets for England lying on top of yet another sheet of letter paper. Aeroplane tickets, no less, Cressida being very much herself and fighting fit. For a moment Una gapes at them in mute horror before she decides they cannot all be like the plane that felled Hut Three and that she has faced worse trials than flying. Joan's inquisitorial moods not least of them. If Cressida thinks that's the way to get Una and Robin over to England for Christmas…Una smiles indulgence. If nothing else, it will enable her to tell Emily the truth of her blood-family in person. Realizing this is tantamount to tacit acceptance of Cressida's scheme, Una moves on to the second letter.
The paper is more expensive than Cressida's sturdy white stuff. Una notices that first. Second she notices the handwriting is neater. For a moment Una stares at it unseeing. She never realized how terrifying was the prospect of finding Robin's family until Cressida's letter disgorged another into her hand like a sprung grenade. One, terrified hand traces her white poppy and shifts to the spiked tails of the fish at her throat. Una thinks, tremulous, Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer…Oh, yes. There are more frightening things than aeroplanes and they come in the shape of spectres that knew Elise English and might lay claim to little Robin.
This kind of paper and writing could mean money. Resources. It would be good for Robin. Equally, Una might never see her again. Adventure after all, little bird, she thinks, and wonders what these grand people – person? – will make of little Robin English, whose milk teeth fell out prematurely, and with a birthmark on the arch of her right foot in the shape of a crooked star.
Steeling herself, Una begins to read.
I first met Elise English inside St Mark's Church, Clerkenwell. It was my first church, and I had no idea what I was doing. I found her one evening as I locked up. I was between a food ministry program for central London and taking evensong for a friend at – Forgive me. I will spare you the details.
I remember Elise particularly because of the uniform. It was the kind of thing girls from Magdalene Laundries wore…
'Joan was right, then,' Una says to no one in particular. Dr. Makori always did suspect Irish ancestry for their Leesey. Kiki lifts her head from under her wing, swells her chest and says conversationally, 'Murrrrrderrrr!'
Una startles. The letter judders between her fingers. But it's only what Kiki always does, so Una swallows admonishment and reads on.
You must understand, when I met her she wasn't Elise English yet. In fact, I think I watched her come up with the name when I took her for breakfast at Evie's Diner the next morning. I'm convinced she got 'English' from their menu advertising a full English breakfast. No idea where Elise came from. But those places, the one she left, I'd be surprised if they'd done more than give her a number. Easier to adopt out, that way.
She was going with a young gentleman at the time –I use 'gentleman' loosely – called Ned. I never got his full name, and I never liked him, either. I don't mean because of where he came from or how he spoke, I mean because he left that young girl stranded in St Mark's on her first evening in a strange city.
By the time he reappeared, which was months later, I had Elise housing with some Anglican nuns and she was helping me with the food ministry and the Poor Clares with their garden. Then Ned reappeared and off they went one of those clubs that was so popular. Ned told Elise it would make her money, which neither the Clares nor I could offer. She seemed happy, so I left it at that. God moves in mysterious ways, etc.
It was still more months before I saw her again. This time she was running pell-mell out of the The Blue Carnation in Soho. She ran straight into me. I knew immediately something terrible had happened. I couldn't make top, tail or middle of it, but it was bad, because there was blood on her hands. A better man would have stuck around and called the police. I took her back to St Mark's, washed the blood from her, and sent her back to the Clares. Then I made contact with a friend who did mission work out East to see if she could join him. I thought it would get her away and out of trouble. That was in '39.
Then the war came. At first I thought she was well out of it. That we would hold Hong Kong and that. Later, when I heard about the Fall of Singapore, I realized I had been arrogant enough to think I could solve everything for her. And you say there's a daughter.
I should like to meet her, if you can forgive the curiosity. If nothing else, I should like to know the end of the story that started that evening in St Mark's.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Reginald Sowerby
Una reads with her fingers to her mouth. Long after reading, she sits there, unseeing, lines of careful copperplate blurring before her.
'Oh, Elise,' she says to no one. The relief when Kiki says nothing is palpable. 'All that and you never said.'
One hand enfolds her fish, swimming everlastingly around their sapphire heart. The tails prick her fingers and Una hears herself say, not meaning to, 'You might have said to me.'
It's an easy thing to slip back to those long evenings on their platforms, Elise curled uncomfortably close in the heat, her skin flush with Una's, Elise whispering secrets, and Robin between them. Elise said she was Anglican – and no wonder, Una thinks now, Fr. Sowerby of St Mark's letter in her hand. After all that, what else would Elise call herself? Easy, to think of the nights walking the floor with a fretful Robin, while Elise sat there statuesque and unbelieving that she and her child were prisoners of war.
But there's many things they never told each other. Naturally Elise hugged her secrets close, how she learned to dance not least of them. Una always supposed some well-intentioned parent paid for schooling. But it wasn't like that. Of course it wasn't.
Una's hand moves from fish to the white of her poppy to the blue of Li's ring and twists it gently. She sees again the day she sold it. Feels the awkwardness of it as she prised it off her finger, how tightly wound it was, the stark white mark it left behind a blazon of disloyalty to Li. Recalls how naked she felt without it. But it bought Robin soft food and Robin did not die.
She hears again the the night sounds of crickets and mynas, the sensible tread of Bernice's much-battered shoes as she snuck up on Una in the black of the night and dropped the ring into Una's unsuspecting lap. Una was looking at the moon, and whispering nonsenses from Essays in Idleness into the shell of Robin's ear. Then the ring, winking midnight-blue in the silvered light of the sky and the smell of Bernice, rice, lice, sunburn and iodine from one of Nellie's dressings. Una remembers she stared. First at the stone, then at Bernice.
'I sold that,' Una says, 'to keep Robin alive.'
'I bought it back,' says Bernice, never missing a beat. 'My hands feel all wrong just thinking about not having my wedding band. No reason you should have to make do if I don't.'
It was the only time Una ever said it. She looked at the gemmy blue of the ring, saw how like the sea of an island summer evening it was. And then she looked at the moon, and at the nimbus of moonlight around Robin's sleek, dark hair. Una looked at these things and at Bernice and said, 'That's not what it is. I never married.'
Una doesn't remember now what she expected. She does remember that by the light of the moon Bernice's eyebrows lifted a fraction, and that Una, seeing this, thought Bernice did it more out of curiosity than censure. Spinning the ring gently between thumb and forefinger Una said, 'My sister gave it to me and told me to say that. She thought if the worst happened, it would keep me safe.'
Bernice said, 'Bloody good luck I got it back for you then, isn't it?' There's a fraction of a pause and she adds, humour wry and warm, 'Miss Meredith?'
'I suppose it is,' Una said, agreeing easily. Reflexively she slipped the ring back into it's habitual spot. It was warm from handling, moonbeam-light and unobtrusive at her finger. Some of the strangeness that had chased at Una's heels since letting it go ebbed into the still night air. Una remembers thinking Forgive me, Li, and knowing that miles away, Li would have done the same.
'Can't have you bartering protection away,' Bernice said. 'Probably your sister would never forgive me if I let you.' Then, with the staunchness that was typical of Bernice, 'Anyway, I won't let on.'
She still hasn't. Not to Emily, Joan, or Cressida, or the abrasive RAPWI woman. If it wasn't for the occasional joke between them almost Una would think Bernice forgets. So, yes, on second thought, Una concedes Elise her secrecy. It was only what they had all done.