People would come to speak of two Londons: one gutted and one singing. Sylvie had found herself in each, straddled them, yet she struggled now to recall either. Dimly aware of the bodies trapped under rubble and talking to a woman, holding her hand until the stretcher came; of the jitterbug that had danced round her one night – yes, the ladies in the shelter had taught her, packed in as they were, and drafted her into their world. A gentleman had warned them not to excite a lady in her condition. The ladies’ cheeks had pinched, laughter held in check until the gentleman’s back was turned. Sylvie couldn’t resist mimicking him, to hell if he heard, she’d said as the ladies covered their mouths and snuck glances in his direction, the ageless glee of midsummer fairies `ushing their faces. Oh you should be an actress, one said. No chance of that now, another said, her eyes, mellowing, on Sylvie’s belly – she had squeezed her hand then, holding it for a moment longer, pressing warmth into her palm as though it might be something Sylvie could carry with her.
But then, from Harry’s birth to Arthur’s death the arc of life was crossed at once. Empty cradle had been twinned with empty grave and took all sense from the body she’d have to live in, from the city she was meant to call home.
The last all clear wouldn’t sound for another week and, while infant heads and hands and feet were blown from tiny bodies rendered nameless, Sylvie forged a tiny corpse of her own. Binding sticks and twigs, lined with moss and stu^ed with stones, she wove her Arthur into deathless life and laid him in the ground, piling the warmth of the earth over him, planting him in a second womb. We’ll visit, she promised, every Thursday.
Sylvie crouched and turned up the sleeves of the boy’s coat to _nd his hands and took one between both of hers. The boy lifted the face he’d buried into his chest just enough for her to see that it was all creases and caverns. It seemed to contain more lives than a single face could hold, as many as the journeys he’d taken. Sylvie clasped the hand in hers a little tighter as though it might still the tremor that crossed his eyelids – the twitch of a moth’s wings unable to close. His biography was studded with gaps and conjectures, linked by the gates he’d been bundled through, the arms that had carried him, the shifting borders he’d crossed, the wheels that had halted over a patchwork of wastelands peopled by spectres emerging to speak for the dead. Two years since he’d been delivered from an underworld that was meant to have no exit, two years of strange eyes and new voices.
‘I’m to be your Ma,’ she told him. The boy dipped his face again but let her keep his hand, his black eyes on her knees until, crouching too, they found their way up to hers. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘are to be Arthur.’
‘He’s a bit small,’ Gerald said, ‘a bit small and a bit dark – he’ll never match up with Harry.’
Quiet too, Sylvie thought. No, he never would match up. All there seemed to be to make the boy and Harry a pair was the age they shared. Not a day apart. It wasn’t possible, Sylvie had said, the pen she’d been given to sign with falling out of her hand, the sharp black marks numbering the date on the form seeming to move again. She reminded herself it must have been estimated, maybe even just _lled in at the last minute, one day might be as good as any other. Numbers had been rounded o^, ages approximated. Even that morning, taking out a second set of sheets and towels, the child that had begun to take shape in Sylvie’s mind remained a composite: the faces of toddlers snapped for the Sunday Pictorial, clutching stu^ed bears, sitting cross- legged in a circle round the matron playing the harmonica – the constriction Sylvie had felt in her throat though, undeniable, that moment when Gerald’s mother had unfolded the paper and laid it in front of Sylvie, urging her to turn to the next page –
This is a story about children, anybody’s children.
Over a year since she’d seen the caption, but the imprint it left was visceral, while the report written to sponsors appealing for funds and all those whispers, relayed from committee members to Gerald’s mother to Sylvie, had barely touched her, too carefully varnished in Gerald’s mother’s voice. Sylvie recalled that Tuesday morning she’d sat opposite the child welfare oacer, her head clamouring with the instructions from Gerald’s mother – and yet still the boy hardly seemed to take life beyond the latest scrap of knowledge she’d managed to assimilate – just that he was one of a possible thousand orphans to be granted entry into Britain.
The child welfare oacer, blinking behind her wire-rimmed spectacles, had licked a _nger and `icked through the _le on the table, saying it wasn’t only the youngest whose names and birthdays had been allotted, some of the ones old enough to speak might be too frightened to say, others couldn’t remember. Of course, of course, Sylvie had murmured, trying to hold the child welfare oacer’s eye. It was as though their histories had been erased, Sylvie had said to Gerald later, her arms suddenly weak as she lifted Harry from his bath. Tabulae rasae, Gerald had said. He’d started walking away then – records had been scattered, he reminded her, destroyed, blanks left pending –
Too small. Too dark. Too quiet.
Yet the less the boy matched up to Harry the more he seemed, at least to Sylvie, to _t the life that had died inside her, that she had felt shrivel while Harry grew and grew.
Still, Gerald promised Sylvie, he’d make a proper little Englishman out of him: a proper little Englishman, a proper little soldier and a proper little Arthur.
Sylvie had prepared herself to assume the role of mother – nothing more. A role she would play with the same indi^erence as she played wife. But then, the boy in front of her, seeing him take in his new world inch by inch, his eyes beginning to chart the ground just beyond his feet – this tiny act of courage, small and quiet as the boy himself – drew Sylvie to take his hand, and the veil of indi^erence had shown itself to be threadbare. Gerald’s eye checked her: What was best for proper little soldiers?
Sylvie’s _ngers straightened, a hardened palm across her belly: proper little soldiers needed eaciency, a _rm hand and _rm tone, and being pulled under by the touch of him, the quiet of him, wasn’t going to make a proper little soldier out of anyone – least of all her. And she had to be. No one was getting out of the army now.
Gerald glanced Sylvie over with a casual eaciency that peeled back her tone: ‘Bath, dinner, bed.’ The boy’s head disappeared between his knees, his arms wrapped round them, a prickle-skinned ball as Sylvie’s hand reached to touch his shoulder.
‘Maybe he’s deaf,’ Gerald suggested.
‘I think he’s tired,’ Sylvie said, standing back. ‘We should try and get him upstairs.’
Gerald picked Arthur up and laid him on the mattress next to Harry’s bed. It seemed as though he handled the child with the same vague irritation that accompanied the mechanical duty with which he lifted garden tools. But he had lifted his hand to the back of the boy’s neck then, holding it there as he sighed and closed his eyes, opening them as soon as Sylvie reached to touch his arm. He straightened, nodded, saying he’d leave Sylvie to it, that he had things to do.
‘Gerald—’ ‘Not now, Sylvie.’
And not later. Again she’d seen the instant before the General gave way to the man – and Gerald couldn’t forgive her for seeing that.
Sylvie bent over the curled child, lowering a hand that didn’t yet dare touch his cheek. A single glint in the half-darkness of the room told Sylvie he’d never sleep and the open eye sewed itself shut. Sylvie looked over at Harry, splayed on his back, open-mouthed, the surviving half of a double yolk. She’d walked him down to the swings that morning, telling him he was getting a new brother to play with. ‘Swings?’ Harry had asked, pulling his hand out of hers and running ahead. ‘Harry! Harold!’ She’d started to run after him and then just stopped, barely able to tell him apart from the other children, lost in delighted shrieks. She shook herself and rushed towards the huddle of nannies burdened with bags and coats, watching him prance and stumble. We’re getting you a new brother, she said to herself. Arthur – can you say Arthur, Harry?
As far as Sylvie would remember it, the boy’s silence would not break for another week, the instant snatching her back to the howl she’d once felt but never heard. A second cry was meant to rise up and join Harry’s that spring but, without a living voice to carry it, the silenced wail of primal need was trapped in the womb that had failed it. More animal than human, it dissolved Harry’s cries to little more than background noise. That same soundless howl pitched its helpless terror again – but this time it found a voice in the boy’s cry: embodied, it _lled her grieving womb with her dead child, lending `esh to the twig baby she’d planted and fresh hope to the white buds she’d scattered, melding the two Arthurs to one. The cry pulled her up and told her, if only for that night and the days that followed, that this small dark quiet they’d named Arthur was her Arthur – and her Arthur had gone.
‘Go back to sleep, Sylvie,’ Gerald groaned. ‘He’s not there. He was crying out.’ ‘How can he have gone if he was crying out?’ ‘You’ve got to get up.’
‘I’ve got to sleep. Go to sleep, Sylvie, go to sleep.’
‘He was screaming.’
‘The only one screaming is you. You’ll wake Harry.’ ‘I’m not screaming.’
When Sylvie found him, blanket-wrapped in the airing cupboard, she hovered her palm just close enough to his head to feel the _ne crown of black hair beneath it. ‘It’s alright,’ she said, ‘you can stay here if you like.’ So she sat on the `oor beside the open cupboard and told Arthur stories about another little Arthur just like him who was also very small, and also very quiet, but no one in the whole wide world had ever seen him, no one knew why he’d gone or where he’d gone – no one but her – but if Arthur was very very good she would take him one day and show him this other little Arthur. She’d show him where she’d planted him. Every day he grows a little bit bigger, she told him, a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger and when he’s big enough and strong enough it would be time to pull him up and out of the ground for the whole wide world to see.
Sylvie stroked the boy’s head and he looked up at her, one of his hands gripping the blanket. Feeling him shiver, she unfolded another and laid it over him, telling him to close his eyes, ‘that’s it,’ she whispered, ‘just close your eyes.’ He’d settle now, she told herself, hearing again the end of the story she’d just told, seeing the wish it held take root, yes, just close your eyes.
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