In after years, when Una remembered the beginning, she would remember him coming up the garden path and finding her cutting the lilacs back. Ingleside was askew with the world, and she was too, and it was the sense of shared uselessness that solidified their friendship.

'Mother loves lilacs,' Shirley had said by way of greeting.

She had said, 'I'll send some home with you, remind me.' Then, because she wasn't sure if the pause should be filled or not, 'I love them too, but they will take over this corner of the garden if I don't stop them.'

He said, 'can I do anything?'

No, no, she had nearly finished, then in a fit of manners, 'here I am keeping you outside and you surely didn't come round to talk gardening. Can I give you anything? Coffee? Tea?'

Shirley said, 'I seem to remember your preference is for tea, but you mustn't feel…' but she was motioning him inside and into the drawing room, arms full of lilac cuttings still, saying, 'give me half a minute to put the kettle on. You're sure tea's all right?'

It became a habit. They didn't talk much, he because he was no great talker and she because she had never been sure how to talk to him and never thought of herself as having anything worth saying in any case. But it was companionable silence, punctuated now and again by Bruce, who came tumbling in to say goodnight to his sister and was duly and lovingly sent out with a kiss and 'Good Night God Bless,' as if it were all one word, 'Goodnightgodbless.' Sometimes Rosemary was there, but often Shirley met her in the lane, on her way to Ingleside as he was on his way to the Manse. He presumed she came back to settle Bruce, because in those long evenings Una never did, and he assumed it was Bruce that stopped Rosemary sitting with them of an evening.

It was afternoon the day he came with the news he was going away, anxious to do his bit, more anxious about telling her so. In the end, he didn't have to.

As she handed him his teacup she said, 'when will you go?'

He said, 'Soon,' and in response to his unasked question,

'You had a birthday recently, I didn't miss it.' Followed, impulsively on her part by, 'promise you'll come back.'

And he pressed her hand as he took the teacup, a silent promise that one way or another they would sit here, like this again, and talk of things that weren't full of ghosts and fearfulness. When he got up to leave she saw him to the door and called out, 'God go with you,' the way only she could have done.

Hours later, she would be startled to find she could still feel the warmth and roughness of the hand that had pressed hers, just as he continued to hear, in all the long hours of what followed, her voice the middle of the soprano register, reaching him on the garden walk, 'God go with you!'

And in a way, He did. At least he came back, which was more than could be said for Walter on that night when Little Dog Monday howled unbearably until the birds took over. Long ago now. That he had not come back in tact, short one limb, meant that of course anything that might have begun over tea would have to stop. Would have to stop so completely, that when Shirley finally was back in Glen St Mary, his first impulse was to walk up to the Manse. It was late and he worried about Mother Susan and Mother. About the way his father might look at him.

As ever, it was Una that came to the door and the first thing she said was 'let me look at you.' Yes, let her look because surely that would very completely stop whatever impulse it was that had made her extract that promise from him. 'But it's good to see you,' she said, and then, 'come in, have you eaten?' Which was so very much not what he'd expected that he was startled into saying that no, he had only just come up from the train.

'There's casserole put by if you would like some. It's only pulses… the meat ran out earlier in the week and so it's been all pulses and vegetables since but…'

'I don't want to be any trouble.'

'You won't be. You said you hadn't eaten. Sit.' He did not know the Una who spoke in imperatives and told him what to do. 'I'm sorry about the pulses.'

'Don't be. Pulses are good. There are worse things than pulses.' Much worse, usually tinned. Pulses sounded very good after the trip he'd had.

She was laughing in spite of herself. 'Tell that to Bruce for me. Jims too, I think Rilla would appreciate it.'

'How is Rilla?' He had missed her, the little sister he had made so much of teasing.

'Growing into herself. She and Jims are good for each other.'

Shirley tried to picture this, and could a little, he had left Rilla very nearly grown up after all. Una, who had disappeared into the kitchen, now reappeared with the casserole and tea.

'I hope tea's all right. Only I thought because…'

'I seem to remember your preference is for tea.'

She smiled at that. 'I hope you're having some too.' And she was back into the kitchen for another cup and saucer. They did not talk, but then it was enough to be silent, it had so often been.

Tea became a habit again. It was good to sometimes be out of Ingleside and just at first Rainbow Valley frightened him. They had all been there as children and they could never be all together again…which was just one of the conversations he was not having with Una. And yet, it was not like being at Ingleside, where the unspoken conversations were a tangible thing that sat in the room while he sat with his family. He relayed news that surely Rilla had already given her, she told him what Rilla had certainly already told him about Bruce. They had tea with Osbornes because rations somehow reached far enough for Una to bake such things, although she would apologise for the paucity of sugar.

'I'm afraid they're very nearly savoury,' she said, and he laughed, because after so much bad food it was more than possible to enjoy nearly-savoury Osborne biscuits. There had to be biscuits, Una explained, because she felt it was an unkindness to offer a guest tea without biscuits.

Once she said, 'we were so worried when you didn't come back right away, but Rosemary and Susan both said "no news is good news," and I said it with them, because we could hardly tell your mother anything else and we all wanted it to be true, and it was. I'm glad.' But that was all.

A different afternoon he noticed, coming into the drawing room ahead of her, a cushion that hadn't been there before; clearly her work because Faith's satin stitch always buckled. She noticed him looking and said, 'I worked it off a prayer card of mother's I found somewhere when we were clearing out. I needed something to do and if my hands were working I wasn't thinking about what might happen to Carl and Jerry, to all of you.' All shall be well and all shall be well, said the split-stitch writing and he wanted to believe it. All manner of thing shall be well. He put the thought to one side and asked instead about Bruce.

He ran into Bruce the first time he ventured into Glen St Mary after coming home, that is, went properly into the town and not just over to the Manse. Bruce, coming out of school for lunch, ran at him and wrapped his arms around Shirley's legs. Apparently he didn't mind about the wooden one either, or was too small to understand.

'You came back!' He said brightly. 'You came back and made Una's eyes bright again. They went dull like your mum's but then you came sometimes for tea and they were almost better, and then you went away and they were dull and she didn't have time and was too tired to play. She and mother had their sewing with them but they didn't really sew, the fabric just got hoop marks and Una was always doing fancy-work. It's very good and you'd like it, you have to look real close to see the pattern because she's working it in white, and mother says you need really clean hands for whitework like that, that only Una could do that. But you're back now and it doesn't matter because you've made her eyes bright again.'

All this in practically one breath while Bruce beamed at him. Shirley was too taken aback to say very much in reply. He was not, on reflection, especially good with children, least of all talkative ones, and Bruce was in a mood to be talkative. He turned back to walk with Bruce, uneasy about letting him walk alone, and suddenly not wanting to go into town.

Quite suddenly Bruce said, 'promise you won't make Una unhappy? Promise you won't let the light in her eyes go away ever again?' Shirley had the uneasy feeling he was being asked to make a promise he couldn't, or mightn't be able to keep. 'I'm very fond of your sister.' He said by way of answer.

'But promise,' said Bruce. Shirley picked him up and made the boy swoop up and down within his arms - this with some difficulty because Bruce by then was well on his way to growing up.

'I'm an aeroplane!' Bruce said and put his arms out as if they were wings. Then said, 'you still haven't promised.'

He was saved answering by the sight of a figure in white and blue linen running the length of the road. That it was Una was evident by the plait that ran down her back and she stopped short when she saw them. She was flushed from running and the colour suited her, he thought, but Bruce had disconcerted him and even if he hadn't, it was hardly something to say. She was brushing loose strands of hair out of her eyes.

'Bruce, I worried when you were late coming in. Then I thought perhaps you'd gone into the General Store and were spoiling lunch with sweets and I thought- but it's all right if he's with you.'

Shirley set Bruce down and he ran ahead of them, arms out, crying 'Look Una, I'm an aeroplane!'

Una had turned to him, had said, 'why not come to lunch? It is only sandwiches but I'm sure we can stretch to sandwiches for three.'

He sat with Bruce and talked planes, they did not reprise their earlier conversation and he was relieved.

Later Susan would say, 'we missed you at lunch.'

Shirley had said, 'I was unexpectedly at the Manse.'Susan raised an eyebrow. 'Not you too,' he had said. 'I've just had Bruce making me promise, or wanting me to promise, not to hurt anyone.'

'Not to hurt his sister you mean,' Susan had said robustly, 'and quite right he is too. He's a good boy Bruce, you can tell he's a minister's child. I don't mind telling you I worried he'd be spoiled, having practically two mothers, if you count Una too, I mean, and everyone does. But they've done well by him and it's as well I never said a word.'

Shirley laughed. Impulsively he relayed Bruce's conversation in its entirety and felt rewarded when Mother Susan's eyes sparkled and she laughed long and with him.

Then she stopped and said, 'I hope you did promise.' He wanted to laugh again, to tell her to not talk nonsense, but Mother Susan didn't talk nonsense. 'There wasn't anything to promise. We're good friends. We have things in common to talk about.'

Susan snorted. 'Good luck telling Mrs Cornelia that. I'm not the only one who's noticed, you know. And good luck convincing your mum.' He shook his head. 'I shouldn't have to. It's quite obviously-'

'Tisn't obvious at all, love. I can see what's in front of me and I won't have you sit there and try to come up with reasons why you can't or won't follow through. You always have before.' This last spoken gently, softly, and it niggled at him.

'If I had come back all in one piece'

"You know that doesn't matter.' Susan said, almost fiercely now. 'If there's one person who won't notice or care it's Una Meredith.'

He didn't like to say that she had never ostensibly noticed. That when he had come up to the Manse that first evening with the casserole, she had only taken his hands and held him at arm's length and said, 'but it's good to see you again,' as if everything were as it had been.

'Besides,' and this half seriously, 'Rosemary would thank you for giving her her kitchen back. They've been battling over it, albeit lovingly, for far too long. You can't have two home-makers in the same house, it just doesn't work.'

This time he did laugh. 'Seriously though,' Susan went on, ' you did promise, didn't you?'

'Not really, no,' he had said, not looking at her. 'Besides, we were interpreted and never finished the conversation.'

'You mean to then?'

'I didn't say that.' He still wasn't looking at her.

'Then you'd better make the Manse less of a habit. To all intents and purposes you're courting her. I can't be plainer than that, love.'

They were having the conversation they had spent months now not-having, and he was glad that it was Mother Susan he was having it with. Nor was it the conversation he'd anticipated, because he hadn't thought the Manse family would come into it. "I really don't think she sees it that way,' he said softly.

Susan, rising from the table and gathering up crockery, had said, sounding almost exasperated, 'for Goodness sake, listen to Bruce and look at her eyes! They are bright again. He knows her, too. Haven't I told you she's as good as another mother to him?'

'I don't see how Bruce-'

'No,' Susan had said, 'no, you wouldn't. You're not looking properly. Think on it at least.'

He had gone down to Rainbow Valley then, for the first time in a long time, but it seemed safer than the Manse, in light of Mother Susan's ideas. His mother's ideas too, she had said. How many other people, he wondered, had had the same thought? He had not expected her to be by the river, but of course she would be, he thought now, it had been a haunt of Walter's and he ought to have remembered. That he hadn't was the result of the absence of the ghost that had once established them as friends.

'I've missed coming here' he said because he didn't feel he could relay Susan's conversation.

'I have too, life took over all through the war' she said, but she smiled as she said it. 'Rosemary's taken over Bruce, he wanted some story I didn't know and I thought I was probably in the way. We take him turn-about of an evening at the moment.'

He stretched his legs out in an effort to be comfortable. He still wasn't used to having only the one properly.

'Are you all right?' She sounded anxious. 'I could go fetch-'

'No,' he said, 'it's all right.'

'You didn't look comfortable give me a minute and-'

'No, I meant I was all right like this. You don't mind?'

She shook her head, 'no, why should I? You came back and that was important. It would have been awful if we had lost any more of the Rainbow Valley family, which is what we were really. There was such a gap after…and I'm not brave like Faith or your mother.'

The crickets chirped, their cheerfulness at odds with the memories they were both reliving. 'When,' she began and stopped, making a motion with her hands. 'I shouldn't have asked.' She said, as if some apology were needed for such a natural question.

Then, in spite of not meaning to, in spite of having resolved not too, he was telling her about the plane, and falling, not really crashing because it wasn't high enough for that, but how he was trapped all the same and couldn't get out, the infection and the medical care and how, even if there hadn't been the infection, there wasn't very much they could have done. He had never spoken so much before, so quickly, and he was reminded of Bruce's breathless remembrance about his mother and sister in wartime. They had their sewing but they never really sewed and, and, and…He was smiling now.

'What are you thinking?' this asked gently, from far away, as if she were somewhere else.

He didn't answer right away, and while he reached for a way of telling her about Bruce, he became aware of someone humming, and it was a tune he could almost place. He had never thought of Una as musical, and was trying now to remember if she had ever lapsed into humming things before. He decided not. The tune, he realized, with its easy predictability, was a hymn, 'All My Hope on God is Founded.' Of course he would have settled on Una as likely to sit by the brook in Rainbow Valley and hum hymns, if he had to settle on anyone he thought. Or at least, now that the reality was in front of him he liked to think he would have done. He never did answer her question, never did communicate Bruce's memory of the hoop-marks.

He instead said, 'Bruce says you are working on a project.'

'Mm?' She was back again, suddenly, the hymn fading as she spoke.

'Yes, a tablecloth. Whitework, nothing terribly much to look at. It was something to do in the time I didn't have. I used to be able to do a tablecloth in a month. That's a memory from years ago now.'

'I'm sure it took all my sisters ages longer, even before,' and he made a gesture with his hands, leaving the awfulness unsaid.

'None of your sisters are sewers really. Rilla's becoming one, but not what Bruce would call fancy-work, and I can't really see it suiting her. Besides, practical sewing is far more useful and just as tricky. It was something Rosemary taught me, when she first came to us. She tried to teach Faith to, but she never did like to sit still so long.'

For a moment, Shirley remembered Faith as she had been as a little girl. No, he couldn't see Rosemary making a needle-woman out of her. But then, he had never before thought of Una as someone who did much needlework either. They parted with the sun, she extending an invitation to him that promised tea and nearly-savoury Osborn's.

His mother met him on the porch. 'Susan says you want a hint,' she said without any preamble. 'Three guesses as to why girls start on whitework tablecloths.'

He looked at her curiously. 'It was something to do, she said,' then, 'I didn't realize you'd seen it.'

She was smiling at him, and for the first time in a long while, her eyes are almost sparkling. He thought about Bruce saying her eyes were bright. Don't let them become dull again.

'Guess again,' his mother said. He shook his head. He had an idea of her imaginings, but his mother's thought-world was then, or certainly used to be, a vivid and fanciful place.

'It is only something to think about,' she said, understanding him better than he thought. On his way in he stopped to give her a kiss, saying as he did so, 'Good night and God bless,' as if it were all one word, belatedly realizing whom he has caught this habit from. 'Good night,' mother said and she was smiling. She did not need three guesses to work out where her boy would acquire the gently religious turn of phrase.