The first time had been after the news of the attack on Freddie. They’d gone to the hospital, and nothing Randall had said had got them in to see Freddie. Lix had cried on his shoulder, and he’d taken her to his home and put her to bed between his clean sheets. They’d clung to each other, and at some point in the night, it had turned to a gentle, comforting lovemaking. So different from how it had been in Spain, in his memory. He’d been drunk the whole time. Now he was sober, with all the edges of life unblunted. He knew it was touch-and-go for Freddie. Saw in Lix’s unspoken words that there had been something between them at some time.
It didn’t matter. Lives were long, and hearts were complex, and a man who’d run as far and as fast as Randall had had no business criticizing.
He’d held her, and loved her, and let himself go as much as he ever did. The love of his life in his arms, the sound of her pleasure in his ears, the feel of her body surrounding him, her scent on him: it was heaven in the wee hours.
Heaven was revisited often in the days that followed. No words spoken between them, but they were together again. Randall’s heart was on his sleeve with her. It had always been, even when he’d run. When he’d known he could live that life no more. When he’d known that it was stop drinking or die.
He said no words about Lix’s drinking, but one day she too stopped. “Coffee for me,” she said, to him, and he came back to their table with two coffees. She leaned her head against his shoulder. “Don’t feel like it,” she said. “Scarcely have the stomach for coffee.”
“Are you ill?”
“Never better,” she said. But he caught her asleep in her office the next day. Up too late making love with him, perhaps. He resolved to give her some respite from his attentions, not that she seemed to want such a thing.
“Randall,” she said to him one day. “I think we need to talk. Tonight?”
“Of course,” he said, puzzled. They were together every night. Why would they not be tonight? But to his surprise she took him to her flat, not out, and made him a bit of dinner with a candle on the table and sat afterward gazing at him.
He said nothing, but took her hand. There was fear in his heart, though she seemed affectionate enough.
“I think we have a bit of a situation. An issue.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m in a bit of a situation.”
He clung tighter. “You mean?”
“I’m not sure what you want.”
“What I want! Lix.”
“I need to hear it. In words. Preferably good Anglo-Saxon monosyllables if you can. Because I’m not sure I’m capable of understanding anything more complex just now.”
There were tears in his eyes. Randall swallowed, composed himself. He framed his speech as best he could, given the emotion in him. Simple words. Simple concepts. The candle on the table. Their dirty plates. The water glasses. The night in Spain when she’d told him, over a bottle already emptied, another to follow. Tonight his mind was clear. His heart was clear. His hands were shaking, but they were clear as well.
“Will you marry me?” he said.
They were married quietly in a little church in Edinburgh, because that was where Randall’s aged mother lived now. His older sister came in from Glasgow to be there. Bel came in support of Lix, with a much-battered but recovering Freddie sitting in the pews behind, because he could not stand comfortably for very long. It was a quiet wedding because that was Randall’s preference, but it was a happy wedding nonetheless. The groom could not contain his glow of joy.
Lix told him afterward that it was the brides who were supposed to be radiant, not the grooms. He merely smiled, unzipped the back of her dress, and took her to bed tenderly, cautiously.
“Mrs Brown,” he said to her, afterward, rolling it around in his mouth.
“Most boring name ever, darling,” she said. “You ought to have taken mine.”
“Randall Storm.” He tilted his head, considering, then nodded. “Our child shall take it as a middle name.”
“Dougan Storm Brown. Sophia Storm Brown. A trifle lopsided.”
“Your mother is set on Dougan.”
“All right, then. Peter Brown it is. If it’s a boy.”
Neither one of them commented on her choice of a girl’s name. There was no disagreement between them on that point. Lix turned on her side, Randall curled up warm behind her with a hand resting on her belly. He woke her in the morning with urgent kisses and her new name repeated with a rough voice. Randall had, she thought, been waiting a very long time for this. She was sorry, sometimes, that she’d made him wait. But he was a better man now than he had been, a better man now for having gone through the fire and emerged purified and sober on the other side.
The couple spent a quiet week in a cottage on the coast, and returned to London afterward in amity. Lix intended to work her way through in the evening news writing department until forced to stop. Randall quietly pulled strings to make it so.
Lix had, to her surprise and Randall’s continued disbelief, a serene pregnancy, an easy pregnancy, a boring pregnancy. She’d done it once before, little though she liked to dwell on that. She knew what she was in for. And when her water broke and labor was on her, she was perfectly calm as she informed Randall that he might want to fetch a cab.
A hotel in Edinburgh, old, a little drafty, but near enough to the pretty places of the city. One night there, then off to a cottage somewhere more remote, where they would read and talk and plan for the future. Or simply read and rest. Randall wasn’t sure what they’d do. Something calming.
But first they had the wedding night to get through, in this grand old creaking edifice, in a rather lovely room with a four-poster bed.
Randall had, superstitiously, been keeping himself away from Lix’s bed while preparing for the wedding. He’d been doing so since she’d broken the news to him of her pregnancy, which amused her. But something in him felt it would be improper. He would wait, and take her to bed when he’d made an honest woman of her. He knew from experience that waiting sharpened the hunger, and he would savor her all the more for it.
Honest woman. An odd expression. He mulled it over as he undressed in the bath, to give her the privacy she’d requested to change. He would rather have said she’d made an honest man of him. But of course she’d done that long ago. When he’d lain awake in his tent in Normandy, sweating out the remains of the last drink he’d ever taken, knowing that he had to get through this war with dignity, as he had not the last one.
Clothes folded, because he was an orderly man, and the belt of his robe tied. Randall tapped on the door and received Lix’s permission to come out to her.
Lix in a negligee. Sheer, faintly peach. He could see the tips of her nipples through it, the dark patch of hair below her belly. He cleared his throat, blinked. He was still capable of snapping to attention like a soldier spotting a general, even at his age. Well. He went to her. Slipped his arms around her, kissed her. Let his hand wander, find a breast, run a fingertip over that erect nipple. Lix made a most satisfactory sound. He kissed her and she made that sound again into his mouth. Her hand slipped down and cupped him. He pushed against her almost helplessly. She’d always known how to touch him, from that first night together onwards. Clever fingers, clever lips, clever mind. Lix. She was going to send him over before he’d even touched her.
“Shall we go to bed, dear?” he said. His voice wasn’t quite right.
She smiled at him wickedly. “Perhaps we should.”
He tumbled her back onto that bed, the four-poster, and lifted that negligee. She spread her thighs for him and he knelt between them. He let himself look at her lovely lovely sex. Not the only woman Randall had been privileged to see, to touch, to penetrate, but the one he’d loved best, because he loved the mind in the body best. Dark hair, wet, glistening labia, the sound she made when he kissed the little nub at the top. She was the woman who’d taught him how this act, who’d shown him how much delight he could bring to a woman with his lips and tongue. How he need not stint her, because she could cry out over and over from this, and again when he lay over her. Such good sounds. His wife moaning under him. His wife, asking him to take her. Oh, yes, he would oblige, and revel in the different sound she made when he took himself in hand and nudged against her, slipped into her. Oh, sweet feeling, pure pleasure, flesh on flesh, his Lix, saying his name so softly as he moved into her. He watched his body join with hers and smiled. All the way, all the way in, out again, listening to her sigh. So good.
“Mrs Brown,” he said and thrust into her again.
Call him old-fashioned, call him outright barbaric, but something in him felt that now it was accomplished, now she was his wife. He was inside her and she surrounded him and she was everything and she was joined with him now. Let no man put them asunder. No war, no grief, no bottle, no words, no fears. They were one. Lying over her, in the cradle of her hips, moving with her, listening to her little gasps, touching her in the ways he’d learned so long ago were the ways she liked best.
He was graying and there were crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, and he would be an old man when their child was grown, but he could not bring himself to regret it. To regret her. Lix, his wife, reaching her crisis in his arms, shuddering around him. Oh, yes, he was close to it himself, close to spending himself inside his wife-- his wife, his wife, who was already three months gone with his child, his child, everything, it was all too much, Randall couldn’t keep it straight in his head, it was all too good and he was at last a man worthy of her.
He lay over her afterward and tried not to let too much of his weight fall onto her, but he couldn’t bear to be parted from her just yet. At last he softened and slipped out of her. His wife. He’d just made love to his wife. He rolled back onto the pillows and pushed his sweaty hair away from his brow.
Lix leaned on an elbow next to him and smiled down at him.
“I love watching you come apart,” she said.
“Shall try to take that as a compliment.”
“It is, dear.”
He tugged her down to rest against his shoulder. He already knew he wanted to wake her in the morning with more touches, with his lips on her breast. His wife. Lix Brown. Randall smiled into the dark of the room.
Sophia’s birthday. Randall knew the date, of course. He knew that Lix knew it. He did not dare mention it to her. She was heavy with their second child, the one that would be born with his name, the one neither one of them would run from. He didn’t want to trouble her by reminding her of their loss, the grief he had barely allowed himself to feel. Mere hours to feel it before he’d had to function as a producer, to fret over the life that might yet be saved, of his young reporter. Repress it, hide it, button it away into his breast pocket where everything else was hid.
Her birthday today. He might have had an adult daughter now but for his drinking, the ruin of a man he was. How he frightened Lix with his fidgeting when sober. He was to blame.
His fidgeting was out of control again today. He paced from board to board, rearranging the notices, the thumbtacks. He rearranged the bookshelves of a reporter he was chastising mildly for failing to pursue a source. And when he appeared in Lix’s office to take her off to their house, he found himself twitching around the objects on her desk.
“Randall, dear, do stop.”
“Sorry,” he said, and stuck his hands into his pockets.
“Are you well?”
“Yes, quite. Shall we?”
He offered her his arm. Comforting to feel her squeeze, to walk together to the doors, slowing his pace to match hers. Another month to go, she said, and it was beginning to burden her.
He fidgeted again in the cab, touching everything there was to touch and move, rubbing at his knees. His fault. He’d lost her. He’d never known her. Never held her in his arms. Did he deserve this child Lix was bearing for him now? Did he deserve to have married her?
“Randall. Talk to me.”
“I know what day it is, dear.”
“Of course you do,” he murmured, and allowed her to take his hand.
Lix was on his arm again as they made their way up the walk to their front door, but he knew that she was supporting him more than he her. Inside, taking her coat off, helping her to a seat where she could put her feet up. He knelt before her and laid his head in what remained of her lap. He rested a hand on her great belly, where their child turned and kicked. She, he ought to have a sister. It was an injustice. One of the many great injustices of the war, but he must also bear the guilt of this one.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I know, dear. It’s all right now.”
Her fingers in his hair, stroking the back of his neck, sneaking their way into his shirt collar. He’d never deserve any of this, but he’d been given it, and he would accept it gratefully.
Randall had command of himself in a crisis. He told himself this but he knew it was true from his experience through two wars. Was pregnancy a crisis or normality? He asked himself that question as he helped Lix-- his wife, his Lix, his life-- into the cab. She was calm enough in the minutes between bouts of labor pains, but he could not be. Her face, her bitten lip, her hand tightening on his-- Lix ought not feel pain ever, never mind that much. And he could do nothing but give the cabbie directions in the steadiest voice he could summon.
She gripped his hand tighter during the ride. Randall consulted his watch, counted minutes. Ten between the first in the cab and the second.
Great Ormond street, the hospital, up and in. Lix tucked onto a bed, wheeled away from him. He attempted to follow and was diverted by firm nurses into a waiting room near the obstetrics ward. He was alone in the ward, save for an abandoned tea cup, left half-full. Some poor brute of a man, waiting, called away with his tea half-finished. Randall remembered, almost wistfully, the dizzy feeling of brandy in his blood. It was the first time he’d wished for it since the fall of Paris.
He paced. Command, command, stay in command.
Lix, pregnant with his child. His wife, giving birth to his child. The inevitable consequence of union of man and woman. Not inevitable. Frequent. Nature demanded it. Capricious nature, granting him two children with Lix. He was not a religious man, but he considered now praying that he might be allowed to hold this one in his arms. That his wife be allowed to live.
There were sounds in the ward behind the door he was not allowed not pass. His wife’s voice, not speaking words but crying out in pain. It was madness that they kept him from her at this moment, madness that he could not be with her, holding her hand, or sponging her face. He could be of some use. The sight of blood did not affect him. Hadn’t since his first shelling, when he’d found himself able to load film into his camera and document what lay before him that he could not help.
Not a thought he wanted at a moment like this.
He turned himself to the arrangement of the waiting room. Chairs, tables. The order of the magazines laid out for reading by other husbands waiting as he did. Alphabetized, in order by time. Arrayed upon the tables with tops aligned. It was, he knew, useless and no longer a comfort, but it was habit. Something to fill his time. Something to occupy spaces between dim cries from the ward beyond.
He had command of himself in a time of crisis, he reminded himself. Not all of his resources, but enough of them. His resources, in this moment, need only keep him from breakdown, tears, or an assault upon that door at the sound of his wife’s voice. Silence, then feet rushing around, then the sound of squalling.
Randall covered his eyes with a hand and allowed tears to fall.
By the time they came out to fetch him, he’d regained his composure.
It was a boy, they told him, and invited him into the room beyond. He stumbled in, saw Lix sitting in the bed, hair a ruin, face still sweaty, but serene now, looking down at the bundle in her arms. Cap, red wrinkled face under, a wise expression on its-- his-- face. Murky eyes, no color he could distinguish.
Randall found his self-command now, with Lix smiling wearily at him.
“Hello, Randall,” Lix said to him. His wife, holding his son. “Meet Peter Storm Brown.”
“Delighted to meet you, Peter Storm Brown. I think we shall get on famously.”
He touched a finger to the tiny tiny hand curled against his son’s chin. His son.
Infants were agents of chaos. Squalling, spitting, urinating agents of chaos. Randall had, in defiance of current practice, learned to change a nappie, and he had also learned to fear this process. Peter Storm Brown was entirely capable of pissing straight into the air while his wet nappie was being removed, and woe betide a man who leaned over him when this happened.
“Randall, dear, this is what the nanny is for,” said Lix, to whom this never seemed to happen. He had enough money for such luxuries as a nanny, and he did want Lix not to feel as if she had to give up everything because they were now parents.
Were again parents.
Little Peter in his arms, a tiny thing that met his gaze solemnly and latched onto his finger. Little Peter knew his mother and he knew his father and when he first learned to smile Randall wanted to be there to see it. He had missed an entire brief lifetime for Sophia; he would be an old man when Peter was grown. He was determined to miss no more than forced now.
And thus it was that he sat in his armchair of an evening, Lix curled up nearby on the sofa, Peter in the crook of his arm. He read to the boy. In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. Not a thing Peter would understand, perhaps, but Randall liked to believe that it would remain with him, especially if read in the accent of a modern-day Scot. Robin Hood next, perhaps, or more of the great Scott, or perhaps The Boy’s King Arthur. His father had done this for him, so long ago now, and he’d been reading long before he’d been sent to school. Surely Peter would follow suit, particularly with such a clever mother.
So Randall read to his boy, with his wife listening in, her feet up on the sofa. It was a race to see which would be lulled to sleep by his voice first, his son or his wife. Randall did not take it as criticism. He would sit happily, dandling his boy, with his beloved wife (his wife! Lix! with him at last) near enough that he could smell her perfume. He would keep them safe, he swore, this time he would not turn his back.
Randall had just begun to kiss Lix with some kind of intent when their son rapped on their bedroom door. A moment later it creaked open. He let his head fall onto her shoulder and sighed.
“The lock, Randall, dearest,” Lix said, with resignation, but Randall merely sighed again. Even if the door had been locked, he’d have interrupted their embrace to fuss over their son.
The bed creaked, and Randall felt his son’s weight beside them. He extricated himself from Lix and edged himself away to make room. Peter wedged himself between them and clung to him like a limpet, with his face pressed against Randall’s chest. He was crying. Randall kissed the crown of his head. Such wild hair his boy had, so untamed even when cut short, which Lix could hardly bear to do. She was too fond of the curls and her blue-eyed boy.
Randall rocked him, and Lix stroked his back, and eventually Peter calmed down enough that he sat up between them and rubbed at his nose.
“Hullo,” Randall said to his son. “What has brought you out of your bed and into ours tonight?”
“I had a dream,” Peter said. He fidgeted with his hands in that way he had. Randall found it familiar in intent, though not in specifics. He’d had his own tics as a boy. Peter’s were different. This fidget meant he was thinking, which he did intensely and often.
“What sort of dream, dear?” Randall said.
“It had robots in.”
“Not friendly robots?”
“Not these ones.”
“Ah. Well. Perhaps tomorrow you can draw these robots so that we can recognize them later. Or ask the Doctor to deal with them.”
Peter brightened up. “Oh! He could. Can I write?”
“Yes, you may write. Tomorrow. We shall send him one of your drawings. He’ll sort them out.”
Peter seemed to accept this, for the next thing he said was, “You were hugging Mum.”
“I was hugging her, yes. I hug her quite often. I shall hug her again later.”
Peter nodded solemnly. “Mummy hugs are good.”
“Quite. Now. Shall we inspect your room for robots?”
Randall slid out of bed and took his son by the hand.
The next morning Randall’s lovely, thoughtful blue-eyed son woke his parents with a notebook, a box of crayons, and a pencil in hand. He wanted to write his letter to the Doctor, and it was quite important. So important that he was not certain he could wait until after breakfast. He had, he said, already written a letter but he wanted help with some spelling.
“Sleep,” Randall said to Lix. “I’ll help him.”
Lix smiled at him, touched his arm affectionately, and rolled herself back into the blankets. They had been awake rather late last night, occupied pleasantly with each other.
Randall pulled on a robe against the damp morning and shoved his feet into his slippers. He hadn’t slept enough and he ached after the exertions of the night. What had possessed him to father a child at the age of fifty? He would be snowy-haired and tottering before this lad went off to university. Which he surely would; he was reading and writing quite ahead of his classmates. He was so absurdly blessed, with this wife he loved to talk to, loved to hold close, with this son who was so solemn and funny and inventive and clever.
Peter’s letter was, aside from the spelling, quite lovely. He had learned recently in school how to write letters, and so he had got the formal parts right. Randall set coffee to brew and sat with his son at the kitchen table to write out a clear, correctly-spelled version of the letter. Peter had not yet learned cursive writing, so he wrote it all out in careful block printing.
Dear Doctor Who,
You should know that there are bad robots in my closet. They want to invade. Please stop them. Thank you.
Peter Storm Brown, age 6
“An excellent letter,” Randall said, and stroked Peter’s wild hair.
“I’d like to draw the robots, Daddy,” said Peter. “So he can know which ones.”
“Sensible,” said Randall.
His son took a red crayon from the box, considered it, exchanged it for a black one, then began work drawing the robots. They were, as Randall suspected, rather like pepper pots, with a single protruding stalk in front. He sometimes wondered about the wisdom of allowing Peter to watch the television at all, if his favorite program was going to be the source of so many nightmares. But it seemed to provide equally as much inspiration, as Peter seemed determined to be worthy of helping the Doctor some day. The Doctor and the Beatles, it was hard to say which shadowy figures on the telly were more important to him. He liked singing, he liked drawing, he liked writing little stories. There was no telling what Peter would be when he grew up: right now Randall could imagine no limits for him.
He might grumble and grouse on cold mornings, but there was not a bit of him that minded being a father. Not of this boy, and not with his beloved Lix.
Randall poured coffee for himself while his son drew. Black, a little sugar to indulge himself, to take off the edge of the bitterness. It was not good coffee. He popped some bread into the toaster; it would be an early breakfast, quite ridiculously early for a Saturday, but Peter would recall his body and his boy’s appetite as soon as this letter was dealt with.
Randall watched his son draw and color in the robots, so intent, so careful. His drawings did seem to occupy most of his attention. Perhaps he would find his métier there. There was no reason to rush him to decisions, not at his age; he had another decade before anyone might ask him to work it out.
“Done,” Peter said. He handed the paper up to Randall. “That’s my closet, and that’s the robot and that’s Bun-Bun running away.” Bun-Bun, his stuffed rabbit.
“An excellent likeness. I think the Doctor will find this most informative. Shall we get it ready to post?”
Randall fetched an envelope and a stamp from his writing desk, along with a pen for writing the directions.
“Will it all fit in?” Peter said, dismayed at how much larger the paper was than the envelope.
“Yes, it will fit. We’ll fold it in three along with your letter, see?”
Peter smiled when he saw how the two pieces of paper folded up together and slipped into the envelope. He was fascinated by paper airplanes as well, Randall had observed. His next question was also astute:
“How will the postman know where the Doctor is? The TARDIS moves around. A lot. It went to the Aztecs that one time! And it goes into space too. And–”
“Ah!” Randall said, forestalling the list of places the TARDIS had gone that he knew would follow. “I have a bit of an advantage there. You see, I know the wonderful lady at the BBC who works on bringing the Doctor to you. She knows exactly where the TARDIS is on this date in history, so she’ll see he gets it.”
Peter watched him address the envelope. “What’s that mean? C O?”
“Care of. See? The Doctor in care of Verity Lambert.”
“Does that mean Verity–”
“Does Miss Lambert take care of the Doctor?”
“Yes,” Randall said. “She certainly does.” He smiled down at his son’s curly head. “Would you like to lick the stamp?”
“Please!” Peter said, and his entire body told Randall how happy he was to help with the envelope. What an adorable, lovely boy. Yes, he was biased, but any man would be proud of this son. Randall could not imagine a better outcome for his life. There had been no predicting it, no imagining the chaos, but he was vibrating in perfect harmony with his delighted boy. His son, little Peter.
The tea in Randall’s cup was stone cold, but he swallowed it anyway. Colin was dead, then. Killed in Vietnam. An accident, not action, though there was just such ambiguity in the story that Randall knew to suspect friendly fire. Well. Randall set the morning Times down onto his desk, next to the empty cup of tea, and rubbed his jaw. How many of them were left? Sod all of them were left. Colin had been young when they’d shared a stinking canvas tent in Normandy. He’d have been too old for this war. Did he have a family?
Randall could not, at that moment, recall if Colin had a family.
He twitched at the newspaper, unfolded it, refolded it. Did so again. Set it down next to the cup. The cup was off-center. He moved it. Moved it again.
Curse his weakness, it was on him again. “Lix,” he said, to the empty room.
Lix was-- where was she? At Lime Grove, yes, at work on the program she would soon be producing-- inaccessible. Or rather, accessible, but Randall would have to be in far worse straits than these before he interrupted her work.
He could manage this. Peter was in his room, reading, playing, doing whatever mysterious thing his clever boy found to do this morning. Remember Peter. Don’t give in.
The desk. The desk wasn’t quite right. The books on his desk. Moved, replaced. The papers aligned just so. Pens removed from their holders, replaced. He got up and paced around the room, rubbed his fingers together. He’d never understood this need. Why? Why was he cursed like this? Drink had been the only thing that quieted this hunger. Adjust the chairs, line up the books on the shelf, pace. It was his office. Everything was well-ordered already. Of course it was. There was nothing here to touch. Nothing but a death he could do nothing about. Indochina-- Vietnam-- he remembered what it was like to photograph wars, to see the fellow next to you caught by a bullet while you wondered how the hell it was you were spared. No time to line up anything nicely while you were pacing behind a tank. Tucking precious rolls of film into an envelope that some lucky bastard courier would take back home. Lugging a typewriter along and sitting wherever one could to scrape up one’s bloodied, muddied thoughts into something that the home office would accept to print.
Of course you died. Not as often as the soldiers did.
Normandy had been bad, but it was the Spanish civil war that came back to Randall at these moments. Shelling. Executions of civilians.
He picked up his day book and threw it at the bookshelf. The teacup followed; it did not smash and he was deeply upset about that. It ought to have smashed. Perhaps he ought to try throwing it again–
“Daddy. Daddy.” Peter tugged at his sleeve.
Randall froze, with his hand closed around the teacup to throw. “Peter. Not now.”
“Nothing. Papa needs think time. Go play.”
“You threw everything on your desk,” Peter said, calmly.
“Are you going to throw all the books in the shelves?”
“You did that once.”
Shame washed over him. What had that one been about? Nothing important. Nothing he could have done anything about. Randall let himself collapse onto the floor, his back against the behind his desk.
“I thought you were too young to have remembered that.”
“Mummy was upset so I was upset. But we got to put the books back.”
Randall’s head tipped back against the wall. “Yes, yes we did.”
“That was nice. I can read now. I only knew the alphabet then. So I can help a lot more this time. Except maybe we should do it by color this time. To make your office look nice.”
Peter was in motion all through this speech. He alit at the bookshelves in the far corner, the ones Randall kept meaning to move into Peter’s room. He was fidgeting. His boy, sadly, showed some of the same signs he did. There he was, pulling at the books and rearranging them.
“Oh, Peter,” Randall said, too quietly for his boy to hear.
He still felt that deep unease in himself, somewhere in his chest, somewhere strange, that made his fingers so restless. Then Peter came over to him and crawled up onto his lap. He had a book in his hand. He was getting large, was Peter, and he was none too careful with his elbows. Randall did not protest, but instead kissed the back of Peter’s curly head. He wanted a haircut, as usual.
Randall’s chest felt better, somehow, now that his arms were around his boy. How odd.
“What’s that you’ve got?. Ah, Ivanhoe, I see.”
“Sir Walter Scott,” said Peter. “He found the Honors. I was reading that in the encyclopedia. They have them in Edinburgh now. Daddy, have I ever been to Edinburgh?”
“No, dearest. We haven’t been to Edinburgh since you were born.”
“Oh,” Peter said, disappointed, and Randall formed a resolution to take his family north as soon as Lix’s work would allow. “Have I read this book? I don’t think I have. I don’t remember the cover.”
“I read it to you when you were a baby.”
“Oh.” Again a little bit of disappointment, which stabbed at his heart. “Shall I read it to you again now?”
“I’m not too old for that? Mummy said I was.”
“Nonsense. I read to Mummy all the time. Will you turn the pages for me? And maybe you can help me make tea later, for my voice.”
“Of course, Daddy.”
Randall settled Peter on his lap more comfortably.
In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.
Peter watched his father out the door carefully, to be sure it went on the latch properly. It made the right sound, which he imitated under his breath. Then he turned and ran up the steps to the first floor, where his mother’s office was, where she did her writing. It was also the only room in the house where cigarettes were allowed, so it smelled like tobacco. Peter wasn’t sure he liked it, but his mother smelled like that most of the time and he liked her, so he supposed it wasn’t so bad.
He knocked on the door, as he was required to do when she was working, and then opened it and went in without waiting to be invited. Oops. He stopped short in the doorway, for his mother was sitting on the comfortable chair with her shoes off and feet curled under her, and she was blowing her nose.
“Peter,” she said.
He took this as invitation and ran in toward her, climbed up onto the arm of the chair, and kissed her on the cheek.
“I am to tell you that Dad is off for a walk. He was in his office moving things around but he stopped when I came in.”
His mother gave him a long careful look, the kind she gave him when she was thinking about something. “Did he seem-- Did he tell you when he’d be back?”
Peter shook his head. “He told me to go to you and give you a kiss.”
“Which you have done, thank you.”
His mother’s eyes were red and so was her nose. And she was holding a handkerchief. Peter deduced that this was why his father had asked him to go into his mother’s office and kiss her, to make her feel better. Both of his parents were upset, which made him feel uneasy. He rubbed his thumb against his trouser leg and then reached up and rumpled up his hair a few times. Okay. Better.
“Why are you sad?” he asked. “Why does Dad want to move everything in his office?”
“I was in hospital for a couple of days while you were visiting your grandmother.”
Peter’s stomach went funny and he felt his eyebrows shoot up. “Are you–”
“I’m quite well now, Peter. It was just to be careful. And because your father is a bit of a fuss-budget sometimes, to be honest.”
“Why were you being careful? And why are you crying now if you’re okay?”
“I suppose you’re old enough to hear this sort of thing. Your father wasn’t sure, but–”
“I’m old enough to hear lots of things.”
His mother sighed and tucked the linen into her skirt pocket. “We were hoping to give you a little sister.”
Peter considered this. “I’d like a little sister,” he said.
“I could take care of her and show her how to do things.”
“Yes, we did think that would be lovely for you. But–”
“You’re not having one?”
“We thought we’d succeeded, but it’s gone wrong. We shall try again, I think, once I feel better.”
Peter rubbed his thumbs against his fingers, thinking about this. They were going to try again to give him a little sister. That was excellent. Not half brilliant, even. But this meant it was something one could make happen, and that was new information.
“You and Dad can just make a baby if you want to?”
“Almost. We can start, but it doesn’t seem to stick.”
“How do you start? Can I help?”
His mother laughed a little bit at that question. It was a strange laugh because she was crying. She ruffled up his hair, which she did when she was happy with him, so it felt good. Then she said, “You should ask your father that question, Peter. It’s something for him to tell you, one man to another.”
That made him excited enough that he slipped down from the arm of his mother’s chair and stuck his hands into his trouser pockets, to keep them from moving as much as they wanted to.
“May I go ask him now?”
“He’s out for a walk, you said.”
“He’ll have gone to the square to go round and round. He always does that. Clockwise.”
His mother nodded to him. “You may, then. Do put on your coat, Peter.”
Peter kissed his mother on the cheek a second time and ran down to the front hall to find his coat. It was hanging on the lower peg of the coat stand. His father’s overcoat was still missing, which meant he was still out walking. Peter went out the front door and pushed it closed and listened for the sound of the latch. Then he was down the steps and off.
Peter hadn’t been out in the park that morning as he’d planned to be. He had a kite he’d made with paper and balsa and painted to look like birds in the sky. He wanted to know if it would fly in the wind. But it had rained, so he hadn’t gone out, and now he had other things on his mind. Puddles on the pavements, dead leaves in piles, the smell of more rain in the air. It wasn’t quite cold enough that he could see his breath.
He ran all the way to the square and then went around anti-clockwise. He could see a man in an overcoat and hat all the way on the other side. His father wore a hat most days when he went outside. His father wore a hat but most other people didn’t. His father had gray hair. These two thoughts were connected.
Peter ran up to his father, who bent down to hug him tightly. Peter’s took his father’s hand and they walked the length of the square together, then turned right to walk the next side.
“What brings you out to walk with me, dearest?”
“Mum said to ask you. Man to man.”
“Ask me what?”
“How do you and Mummy make babies?”
“Oh dear,” his father said. “Wasn’t expecting this question just yet. Let’s sit down and discuss it, shall we?”
They walked together along the path toward the center of the square, where there was a statue and some iron and wooden benches. His father brushed leaves off a bench and sat down. Peter sat next to him. The bench was cold enough he could feel it through his trousers. His feet stuck out over the edge. Some day he’d be old enough to touch the ground. He’d be as tall as his father.
“How shall I explain this?” His father bit at his thumb and then smiled for a moment at him. “You know that there are times when I hug your mother while we’re in bed.”
“A special sort of hug that men and women do can make babies, if they want it to. It’s the kind of thing that they prefer to do with the door shut so they can be alone.”
“Oh. That’s why you lock your door.”
“Yes, er, you had quite a knack for bursting in on us for a time there.”
“So I can’t help,” Peter said. If they had to be alone, it only made sense.
“I’m afraid not.”
More questions crowded in on him. Could they make more than one at a time? Twins, that was twins, and maybe he could ask for twin sisters. What did it mean that they had to want it to make babies? What other kinds of hugs were there if this special kind existed?
The question he chose to ask was: “Can a man hug a man and make a baby?”
“An astute question. Anybody can hug anybody else, but only a man with his wife can make a baby by hugging.”
“Only after you’re married?”
“Ah, not, ah, necessarily. I will confess that your mother and I did hug each other that way before we were married. A very long time ago. It is considered proper to marry first, however.”
“Oh. Did you make any babies back then?”
“Yes, we did. We made one.” His father said this, then cleared his throat. He took his hat off then put it back on again.
“Where is she? Or is it a him?”
“It was a she.”
“What’s her name? Can I meet her?”
“Her name was Sophia, and I’m afraid she died a long time ago. In a German air raid.”
Peter thought this through carefully. The Germans had been to blame for the war, which had been a long time ago but was still something people were upset about. And now they’d killed his older sister. He hadn’t even known he had an older sister until just now and now he’d never know her.
“I don’t like the Germans,” he said, eventually.
“Quite,” his father said. “We must forgive them, though.”
“Many of them were children at the time, like you. Or in an army because they were forced to be.”
“Oh. You were in the war too, fighting the people who bombed my sister?”
“I was in several wars, but as a journalist not a soldier. I took photographs and wrote newspaper articles, and reports that were read on the radio.”
“And you reported for TV and this is how you know Miss Lambert.”
“Television was later, but yes, correct in essentials.”
“Were you forced to do it?”
“No. I chose to do it because I thought it was important.”
“Oh.” This made him unhappy and he frowned at his hands in his lap and rubbed his thumbs against his fingers. Important things were things one had to do whether one wanted to or not. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to take photographs of wars. He liked singing. And painting his kite. And dressing up in costumes. And meeting Miss Lambert and Mr Hartnell and watching them in the television studio, as he had three times now. He frowned and rubbed at his hair the special way, once, twice.
“Peter, dear, is something troubling you?”
“I don’t want to be a journalist,” he said to his father.
“You needn’t be.”
“But I have to.”
“You don’t have to decide now. Wait until you’re grown and then you’ll know what you like, my dear.”
“What if what I like isn’t important?”
“Ah. I see the trouble. If you want to do it, Peter, given the sort of boy you are-- if you want to do it, it will be important.”
“Oh,” Peter said. Music was important, he felt. And so was painting things. Nobody at school seemed to think that, but his father wasn’t ever wrong, so he felt better.
“Shall we go back home and make tea for your mother?”
“Let’s,” Peter said. He hopped down from the bench, took his father’s hand, and tugged at him until he got to his feet. Then he let go and raced away down the path toward home.
Liz unstrapped her shoes and toed them off. She wriggled her toes for a moment, then pulled her feet up onto her armchair. She found her packet of cigarettes and lit one, inhaled, and studied the glowing end. It tasted bad. She’d lost the taste for whisky and wine as well.
She rested a hand on her belly. Third time. Third child. No, fourth child. The nameless child hadn’t lived long enough to be more than a gentle swelling, a few weeks of nausea, and then gone. Easier to bear, really, than what had happened to Sofia. Well. Dwelling on this would not help.
Lix stubbed out the cigarette unsmoked. Time to follow the doctor’s advice and cut back. Cut back on the work, too. She’d been writing for the BBC again, drama this time, not strenuous work, but she wanted to sleep rather more than was compatible with work. Randall’s savings were more than enough for them to retire on, and he had a steady income from writing for newspapers, analysis and commentary, so she could give it up if she wanted.
Randall did enjoy being the one at home for Peter, though.
She would need to break the news to Randall soon. He was attentive enough that he no doubt alreay knew she’d missed her second time. He had no doubt studied her when she wasn’t looking, made some strange sideways calculation in his his head, and decided not to speak. He would be waiting for her to decide to tell him, at which point he would kiss her and look as if he would about burst with joy, and continue to say nothing.
Randall. Her husband.
He looked like a man in his late fifties now. She hadn’t much more time to try herself. She’d done it twice already, after all. Surely her body had one more go in it. She wanted to give Randall a daughter. To give him the daughter he’d longed for and searched for years after she’d flinched and he’d fled and they’d both made such a muck of it. He’d be snowy-haired and dignified and elderly by the time this child was at university, or wherever she wanted to go. One assumed university for any child of theirs, given how Peter was turning out. He liked school rather more than his school masters, but that was unsurprising.
A tap at the door, and it opened. Randall stuck his head in. She nodded to him, and he came all the way in. He folded himself up on the ottoman at her feet, all elbows and knees. Lix stretched her feet out and rested them on his thighs. He cupped his hands around her feet and massaged. Lix closed her eyes and made an encouraging sound. No conversation needed; a moment of quiet company.
“Peter’s asleep,” Randall said. “Wasn’t as difficult as I’d feared.”
Lix opened her eyes to look at Randall. He was smiling. She said, “Did our swashbuckler hang up his sword?”
Randall ran his hands up her calves. “I convinced him to put it under his pillow for the night in exchange for another chapter of Dumas. He nodded off before I’d got three pages in.”
“He loves you reading to him.”
“He’ll outgrow it soon enough, I’m afraid.”
“Well, perhaps we shall have someone else for you to read to once he does.”
Randall raised an eyebrow at her, an expression that was an entire question on its own. Lix shrugged.
“Perhaps. I have learned not to count my chickens.”
Randall cocked his head. “I’m afraid to chase that metaphor.”
Lix considered this and laughed, briefly. “Best not.”
Randall worked his way to her knees and then back down again to her heels. Why did she wear those shoes? Dreadful things. Her feet were all swollen and aching. Though perhaps that was her condition. A little of both. Liz let her eyes close.
Randall laid a hand on her knee and she started.
“You’re tired. Shall we go up?” Then he said, hastily, “To sleep, I mean. Since we are waiting for chickens now, it appears.”
“You’ve gone and chased it.”
“You’re entirely to blame.” He took her hand and helped her out of the armchair.
“I would prefer to sleep tonight, yes. I’m feeling rather logy.”
“Ten weeks? Eleven?” Randall had indeed been counting days. She made a confirming noise. “Perhaps I will read Dumas to you, then.”
“Something more restful, perhaps. Tristram Shandy. I’ll be asleep three pages in.”
“I’ll be asleep three pages in.”
Randall took her arm and helped her up the stairs. Not that she needed his assistance, but it comforted her to lean on him. Randall was, however improbably, the love of her life. Now if only her body would not betray her-- and him-- again.