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. A dim awareness remained 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. 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 and the city she was meant to call home.
The last all clear would sound a week later 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 stuffed with stones, she wove her Arthur into life suspended and laid him the ground, piling the warmth of the earth over him, planting him out in a second womb. We’ll visit, she promised, every Thursday.
Sylvie crouched and turned up the sleeves of the boy’s coat to find 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.
‘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 Harold’.
Quiet too, Sylvie thought. No, he never would match up. All there seemed to be to match the boy and Harold 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 of the date on the form seeming to move again. [She reminded herself it must have been estimated, maybe even just filled in at the last minute, one day as good as any other]. But the less the boy matched up to Harold the more he seemed, at least to Sylvie, to fit the life that had died inside her, that she had felt shrivel while Harold grew and grew.
Too small. Too dark. Too quiet. 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 indifference as she played wife. But then, the boy in front of her, drawn to take his hand – and the veil of indifference had shown itself to be threadbare. Gerald’s eye checked her: what was best for proper little soldiers?
Sylvie’s fingers straightened, a hardened palm across her belly: proper little soldiers needed efficiency, a firm hand and firm tone, and being pulled under by the touch of him, the quiet of him, wasn’t going to make a soldier out of any one – 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 efficiency 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 to get him upstairs.’
Gerald picked Arthur up and laid him on the mattress next to Harold’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. 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 Harold, 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 asked, pulling his hand out of hers and running ahead. Harold! Harold! She’d started to run after him and then just stopped, barely able to tell him apart from the other children, lost in the delighted shrieks observed. 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 failed it. More animal than human, it dissolved Harold’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 filled her grieving womb with her dead child, 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 now her Arthur – the other 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 fine crown of black hair beneath it. ‘It’s alright,’ she said, ‘you can stay here if you like.’ So she sat on the floor beside the open cupboard and told Arthur stories about another little Arthur just like him who was also very small, and also very quiet, except that no one in the whole wide world had ever seen him, no one knew why 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 boy. 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 everyone to see.