Gilbert was demobbed in November and Elizabeth took Lewis up to London to meet him at the Charing Cross Hotel. Lewis was seven. Elizabeth and he got onto the train at Waterford and she held his hand firmly so that he wouldn’t fall when he climbed up the high step. Lewis sat next to the window and opposite her, to watch the station get small as they pulled away, and Elizabeth took off her hat so that she could rest her head against the seat without it getting in the way.The seat was itchy against Lewis’s bare legs between his shorts and his socks and he liked the way it was uncomfortable and the way the train moved from side to side.There was a feeling of specialness; his mother was quiet with it and it changed the way everything looked.They had a secret between them and they didn’t need to talk about it. He looked out of the window and wondered again if his father would be wearing his uniform and, if he were, if he would have a gun. He wondered, if he did have a gun, if he would let Lewis hold it. Lewis thought probably not. His father probably wouldn’t have one, and if he did it would be too dangerous and Lewis wouldn’t be allowed to play with it.The clouds were very low over the fields, so that everything looked close up and flat. Lewis thought it was possible that the train might be standing still and the fields and houses and sky might be rushing past. That would mean his father would be rushing towards him standing in the Charing Cross Hotel, but then all the people would fall over. He thought he might feel sick, so he looked over at his mother. She was looking straight ahead, as if she was watching something lovely. She was smiling so he pushed her leg with his foot so that she would smile at him, and she did, and he looked back out of the window. He couldn’t remember if he’d had lunch or what time of day it was. He tried to remember breakfast. He remembered going to bed the night before and his mother kissing him and saying, ‘We’ll see Daddy tomorrow’, and the way his stomach had felt suddenly. It felt that way now. His mother called it butterflies, but it wasn’t like that, it was more just suddenly knowing you had a stomach, when normally you forgot. He decided if he sat and thought about his father and his stomach any more he’d definitely feel sick.
‘Can I go for a walk?’ he asked.
‘Yes, you can go for a walk. Don’t touch the doors and don’t lean out. How will you know where to find me again?’
He looked around,‘G’.
He couldn’t open the door; it was heavy and they both fought with it. She held it open for him and he went down the corridor, one hand on the window side, the other on the compartment side, steadying himself and saying under his breath,‘along-along-along’.
After Elizabeth had spoken to Gilbert on the telephone the day before, she had sat on the chair in the hall and cried. She cried so much that she’d had to go upstairs so that Jane wouldn’t see her, or Lewis, if he came in from the garden. She had cried much more than any time they had parted since he had first gone away and more than she had in May when they heard the war in Europe had ended. Now she felt very calm and as if it was normal to be going to see your husband whom you had been frightened might die almost every day for four years. She looked down at the clasp on her new bag and thought about all the other women seeing their husbands again and buying handbags that wouldn’t be noticed. Lewis appeared through the glass, struggling with the door, and she let him in and he smiled at her and stood balancing with his arms out.
He had his mouth open with the effort of not falling over and his tongue to one side. One of his socks was down. His fingers were each stretching out. Elizabeth loved him and missed a breath with loving him. She grabbed him around the middle.
‘Don’t! I wasn’t falling!’
‘I know you weren’t, I just wanted to give you a hug.’
‘Sorry, darling, you balance.’ She let go, and Lewis went back to balancing.
They took a taxi from Victoria to Charing Cross and they looked out at the buildings, and the big holes where buildings had been.There was much more sky than there had been and the gaps looked more real than the buildings, which were like afterthoughts. There were lots of people on the pavements and the road was crowded with cars and buses.The weather made it look as if the broken buildings and people’s coats and hats and the grey sky were all joined together in greyness except for the blowing autumn leaves, which were quite bright.
‘Here we are,’ said Elizabeth, and the taxi pulled over. Lewis scraped his calf climbing out of the taxi and didn’t feel it because he was looking up at the hotel and seeing all the men going in and out and thinking that one of them might be his father.
‘I’m meeting my husband in the bar.’
‘Yes, madam. Follow me.’
Lewis held Elizabeth’s hand and they followed the man.The hotel was vast and dim and shabby.There were men in uniform everywhere and people greeting each other and the air was full of smoke. Gilbert was sitting in a corner by a tall, dirty window. He was in his uniform, and greatcoat, and he was smoking a cigarette and scanning the crowds outside on the pavement. Elizabeth saw him before he saw her and she stopped.
‘Do you see your party, madam?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
Lewis pulled her hand,‘Where? Where?’
Elizabeth watched Gilbert and she thought, I should hold this moment. I should remember this. I will remember this all my life. Then he looked up and saw her. There was a moment of blankness and then a smile and from then she wasn’t on her own in her head any more, she was with him. He crushed his cigarette into the ashtray and got up and went over to her. She let go of Lewis’s hand. They kissed, embraced clumsily, and then allowed each other to be very close, quickly.
‘God, we can get you out of this bloody uniform –’
‘Lizzie, you’re here –’
‘We’ll burn it, ritually.’
‘Don’t be treasonous.’
Lewis looked up at his mother and father holding each other. His hand felt strange where she had let go of it. He waited.They stood apart and Gilbert looked down at Lewis.
‘Hello, little chap!’
Lewis looked up at his father and he had so many thoughts in his mind that his face went blank.
‘Aren’t you going to say hello?’
‘What? Can’t hear you!’
‘Shake hands then!’
Lewis held out his hand.They shook hands.
‘He’s been so excited, Gilbert. He’s been full of things to ask. He’s talked of nothing else.’
‘We can’t stand here all day. Shall we get out of this ghastly place? What do you want? What shall we do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Are you going to cry?’
Lewis looked up at Elizabeth in alarm. Why would she cry?
‘No. I’m not going to. We could have some lunch.’
‘Well, not here. Come on, I’ll get my things. Wait.’
He went over to the table where he’d been sitting and picked up his kit bag and another bag. Lewis held tightly to his mother. She squeezed his hand.They still had their secret, she was still with him.
They went for lunch and a huge fuss was made about the chops, which were small and brown, in the middle of a large silver plate. Lewis thought he wasn’t hungry and ate enormously. He watched his parents talking.They talked about the housekeeper, Jane, and whether or not her cooking was tolerable.They talked about the roses Elizabeth had just planted and that there was going to be a big Christmas party at the Carmichaels. Lewis thought he would explode with boredom and his insides would splash all over the walls and onto the waiter’s white jacket. He tapped his father’s arm.
‘Excuse me, sir.’
His father didn’t look at him.
‘I’ll get the train, I should think . . .’
Lewis thought he hadn’t heard.
‘Excuse me, sir . . . Excuse me.’
‘Do answer him, Gilbert.’
‘Was it very hot in the desert?’
‘Were there snakes?’
‘Did you shoot them?’
‘Were there camels?’
‘Did you ride on any?’
‘Did you shoot lots of people or blow them up?’
‘Lewis, let Daddy eat his lunch.’
‘Shoot them to death, or blow them up?’
‘Lewis, nobody wants to talk about things like that.’
He could see that they didn’t. He thought he’d stick to safe subjects.
‘Do you like chops?’
‘Chops are jolly nice. Don’t you think so?’
‘Not bad. Did they give you chops in the desert?’
‘Talkative, isn’t he?’
‘Not always. He’s excited.’
‘I can see that. Eat your lunch, Lewis, and be quiet, there’s a good chap.’
Lewis had already finished his lunch, but he obeyed the second part, and was quiet.
His room was dark.The curtains were drawn, but a little light came in from the landing and fell across the bed. He could hear the wireless downstairs and his parents’ voices, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. He wriggled down further into the bed. The sheets were cold. He heard his mother’s step on the stairs. She came in and sat on the edge of the bed.
‘Good night, darling.’
She leaned and kissed him. He loved her closeness and the smell of her, but the kiss was a tiny bit wet. He felt further away from her than usual, and not sure what to think about anything.
‘Sit up,’ she said.
She held him and hugged him hard. She stroked his hair. Her blouse was slippery on his face, her skin was warm, and her pearls dug pleasantly into his forehead. Her breath smelled familiarly of cigarettes and what she’d been drinking and her scent was the one she always had. He heard her heart beat and felt absolutely at home.
‘All right?’ she said.
He nodded. She released him and he lay back down.
‘What about Daddy?’ she asked.
‘Now he’s back we can be a proper family.’
‘Yes. Will you try to remember not to go on at him about fighting and things like that? When people have had a difficult time they often don’t want to talk about it. Do you understand? Will you remember, darling?’
Lewis nodded. He didn’t know what she meant, but he loved her confiding in him and asking him to do something for her.
‘Is Daddy going to come and say good night? I can’t remember if he does or not.’
‘I’ll ask him. Go to sleep.’
Lewis lay down and she went away. He lay in the dark and listened to the voices and the music downstairs and waited for his father to come and then he fell asleep, quite quickly, like the light going out of a room when the door is closed.
‘War over? There’s still nothing to bloody wear and nothing to bloody eat!’
‘Lizzie, the boy.’
‘Oh he’s used to bloody.’
‘Lewis, run and play.’
Lewis had been watching them get ready for church. He had often lain on his mother’s bed while she dressed before, but his father didn’t like him in their bedroom so, in the two days he had been back, the doorway had become his in-between place.
Lewis went. He sat on the top stair and picked paint off the banister. He could hear his parents.
‘For God’s sake, Gilbert. Church!’
‘I was brought up with church.’
‘Well, I wasn’t.’
‘No; you and your heathen mother more likely to be dancing around with druids.’
‘How dare you –’
There was a pause, and a small laugh from his mother.They must have been kissing. Lewis got up and trailed down the stairs and out into the drive. He kicked the gravel about for a bit and waited.
The small church was brick and flint and the sky was low, and close to it, and full of clouds. The children ran around in the leaves, scuffing their Sunday shoes, and their parents met and spoke as they always had, but still, not quite as they always had, because every week someone else had come home, and another family was altered, and added to, and showing itself again.
Elizabeth, Gilbert and Lewis left the car and reached the churchyard and Lewis pulled away from his mother and joined the children playing between the graves.The game was catch, the gravestones were safe, and you had to try to get to the tree. The rules kept changing and no-one ever said them out loud. Lewis was one of the smallest boys.There was a boy called Ed Rawlins who was two years older and Lewis raced him for the tree. Ed was ‘It’, but Lewis got away from him and stood against the tree getting his breath and looked down at the church.
He could see the girls playing near their mothers. He could see the Carmichaels greeting his parents. He knew they’d have to go in soon and the thought of the cold and the hard pews was practically unbearable. His parents were standing close together. His father saw him and gestured him over, and he took his hands off the tree to go to him and Ed rushed him from one side.
‘Anyway I’m not playing.’
He shoved Lewis sideways onto the ground, wanting to get him down, and then he looked around,waiting to be in trouble and to see if Lewis would cry and draw attention. Lewis got up and inspected his slightly grazed hand.
‘Get off,’ he said, and went to his father.
‘Lewis, behave yourself. This is a churchyard, not a schoolyard.’
‘Yes, sir.’ He took his mother’s hand.
‘Hello there, Lewis!’
Lewis looked at the shiny buttons on Dicky Carmichael’s blazer and didn’t like him. He didn’t see why Mr Carmichael got to stay home while his father was away in the war, and he didn’t like that he got to be in charge of everyone, or that he was going to be father’s boss again. Lewis thought his father should be everyone’s boss.
‘Good to have your father home?’
With a wink, ‘Maybe we’ll see you at church more often.’ This was a tease directed at his mother and Lewis didn’t say anything. Gilbert laughed loudly.
‘Now I’m back, I’d better get my house in order.’
Lewis looked at his mother; she was smiling her social smile.
‘No more Black Mass?’ she said,‘What will I do?’
Dicky moved away with his wife Claire and they went into the church followed by their two girls, one big and one small, in their double-breasted coats and hats and patent shoes.
‘Do you have to make such tasteless jokes?’ said Gilbert.
‘Yes, I really do, darling.’ Elizabeth kissed his cheek and they went inside.
Church was as bad as it could have been.The only thing bearable was exchanging silly faces with his mother. It seemed to go on for ever and ever. Lewis thought he’d die and slither under the pew in front and rot there. He tried not to fidget. He tried to count the beams in the roof and read his hymn book. He thought about lunch. He thought about the vicar’s ears. He stared at the backs of the Carmichael girls’ heads and tried to make them turn around, but Tamsin was nine and didn’t notice and there was no point to Kit at all, she was only four and too young for anything. He thought about no cricket until the summer.
The low sky got lower over the church and a cold wind started and then fine rain on the wind, until the roofs shone with water. Beneath the roofs were Sunday lunches cooking, and fires built up to last until after church. The road into the village was curved and, along it, the driveways were lined with rhododendrons and laurel hedges so that the houses were hidden from each other.The Carmichaels’ big Tudor house backed onto fairly deep woods and you could walk from there to the Aldridges’ without going on the road if you wanted. Elizabeth had done it often when Lewis was smaller and Claire Carmichael was pregnant with Kit.There was a post office and a shop and the church was close to them, on the main street, but as you left the village the houses spread out and they were more disparate. Some of the houses were 1920s, like the Aldridges’, and some of them were even newer, or were cottages that in the past had been attached to the Carmichaels’ house.
The station, like a toy station, was a mile away, along a road of arching trees, and so many of the men worked in London that the road to it had been made wider in places so that the cars could pass one another. Now there had been the war, the station had taken on a new significance.There had been partings and reunions that had made the sound of the trains in the distance, as they were heard from the houses, invested with emotion, not just an everyday sound like before. Even though so many people had come back, it seemed there would never be a point where you could say it was over.There was a lot of talk about rebuilding and making fresh starts, but really it was an odd sort of victory after the first rush of it, because so many people were still away and the news they heard every day was not peacetime news, but full of death and emerging horror.
The rain stopped as everybody came out of the church and got into their cars or walked away through the village and Elizabeth pulled Gilbert to the car faster and faster, like running away, and made him laugh. At home they ate lunch without talking very much and not tasting anything particularly at all and the afternoon, for Lewis at least, was strangely flat and just difficult. He couldn’t seem to do any of the things he normally did, and the sight of his father was still unfamiliar to him and disturbing. He was used to a feminine presence and he found his father’s maleness oddly threatening. He was exciting, and to be adored, but he was foreign too, and he changed the balance of the house. Gilbert’s uniform had not been burned, but hung in the wardrobe in the spare room, where he dressed, and Lewis should have liked him to keep wearing it and be distant and heroic instead of real and influencing Lewis’s daily life the way he did. In his suits and tweed jackets he looked like a father and more approachable, but it was deceiving, because he was a stranger, and it would have been easier if he hadn’t looked like someone you might know very well and yet not be.
The night Gilbert came home it had been at first like he and Elizabeth had never made love before and then, suddenly, familiar and just like always. She had cried with gratitude and he had held her and said,‘What on earth is it?’ — as if he didn’t know.
‘Is it odd to be home?’
‘Of course it’s odd.What do you want me to say about it?’
‘I don’t know. I think I want to know everything in your mind. I want to know what it’s been like for you. I want to know what you’re thinking right now and if you’re happy.You never say anything.’
‘All right then. I was thinking it’s jolly nice to be on proper sheets.’
‘And what else?’
‘Oh, how much I enjoyed dinner.’
‘Absolutely true.You can think me as superficial as you like.’
Elizabeth, giggling,‘No jelly then, in North Africa?’
‘Actually we did have jelly at Christmas.’
‘Why on earth didn’t you tell him? He would have been thrilled.’
‘Well, what about you? How’s your war been, darling?’
‘I know I write dreadful letters, but everything was in them.’
‘Lewis and being here and not going up to town much.’
‘Not too lonely?’
‘Of course lonely. But Kate came once or twice when she could get away from the boys. And Lewis is just a perfect companion.’
‘You’ve been spoiling him.’
‘I don’t think so. It’s not as if I indulge him.’
‘With your time you do.’
‘Of course not, but you ought to have had a nanny. I don’t understand you.You could have had more time to yourself.’
‘If I had any more time to myself, I’d drink myself into a stupor within about two minutes.’
‘You know I would. For goodness’ sake, time to what? Visit Claire Carmichael, or Bridget Cargill? Or go up to town and most likely get bombed to buggery?’
‘Your language is appalling.’
‘Don’t be so pompous.’
‘He’ll be off to school in September.’
‘Yes. I suppose he will. Eight seems so little to go.’
‘All the others will be eight too.You’ll miss him.’
‘He’ll miss me, too.’
‘It’ll be good for him.’
‘Now I’m back, you won’t be lonely and bored.’
‘You’ll be home every night.’
‘I can’t really believe it.’
‘If I fall asleep, will you still be here? Tomorrow?’
‘Of course.And Lizzie, do you really want to know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking — just that –’
‘Oh don’t, you don’t need to tell me if it makes you cry. Don’t . . .’