“A gypsy, I swear she’s as dark as a gypsy,” Judith blurted, a tinge of distaste in her bright blue eyes as she regarded their little girl, Jessica. The pride of their life, who at almost two-and-a-half years old was considered brilliant, beautiful, and utterly winning by all who met her, had been reduced in one second to a possible beggar-child in soiled, raggedy clothes, flashing gold rings in her pierced ears, with a talent for slyness, maybe even thievery. It was all there in Judith’s glance.
Laura could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. How dare she? But there was nothing she could do or say, she and Jessica and her husband, Phil, were Judith Schaeffer’s just-arrived guests, struggling with their luggage on the icy steps. So Laura simply pressed her lips together and stroked Jessica’s hair. But the child was too tired to notice; besides, did she have any idea what a gypsy was? Laura wasn’t sure.
Tom was the first to recover. “Oh, Mother, don’t be so ridiculous, she’s the farthest thing from a gypsy, she simply has brown eyes and dark hair, just like her parents,” he said sensibly, then he and Phil took the suitcases up to their room.
“I told you she wasn’t very maternal, but you didn’t believe me, and she’s not very thoughtful, either, never has been, can’t seem to help it, very thick-skinned herself, but that doesn’t excuse it,” Tom admitted ruefully as he plunked their belongings onto the bed. He looked miserable.
“Perhaps these frightened her,” Laura replied, tilting her head towards the suitcases which bulged with their winter clothes. “She must think we’ve come for weeks.”
Tom shook his head. “She knows how long you’re here for, it’s just that she needs to be in command. Always. Which means putting the rest of us off balance.” He shrugged. “Oh well, ducks, it’s only for a few days, and the Bay is spectacular. Just wash up for dinner, and we’ll sort all this out later.”
But Judith was not to be stopped. Within two minutes she was pounding on the door, then giving instructions. “We have all the modern conveniences because the house was built only a few years ago, even these fancy heated towel bars.” Her voice boomed in the tiled bathroom as she bent her square, but still lithe body to show them where you turned on these fabulous newfangled inventions. “So they’ll be hot when you get out of the shower, or after Jessica’s bath,” she added triumphantly, then looked at Jess as if this contraption had been made wholly for her. Jess smiled back; despite the rude welcome she’d just received she seemed fascinated by this assertive, bossy woman. “I love her eyes,” she told her parents as soon as the door closed and before Judith pushed it open a few minutes ago, “they look like blue headlights.” Jess was right, they were extraordinary eyes, a mesmerizing blue that had purple rings around the pupils, like the lines in one of Jessica’s coloring books, Laura realized.
“See?” Judith now handed Laura a warm towel. Laura smiled dutifully. Wonderful, except that these heated towel bars were apparently expected to warm the entire bathroom. Heat that came from anything resembling a radiator seemed to have been forgotten in the bathroom, and everywhere else. It certainly wasn’t on the agenda when they were building this country house that strangely resembled a suburban American house, but without things like insulation and storm windows and a good fuel system, necessities that Americans simply take for granted.
The evidence was clear in the constantly weeping windows, little rivulets of condensation dribbling down the glass to form blobs of water, too small to be puddles and too large to be tears, on every sill in the house. And in their bedroom, thin sheets of ice near the corners of the window frames, were already causing rot.
The only place warmer than about 43 degrees Fahrenheit was in the sitting room, in front of the roaring fire, where Tom stretched out on the sofa for almost four days straight reading Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain. At meals he would give little summaries of what he had read. But where was the Tom they loved? The marvelous raconteur who adored a clever joke, who was always laughing, who, indeed, seemed to have a reserve of laughter behind his eyes? Gone. Like the few wisps of heat that hovered on the stairs when they trudged off to bed each evening. Leaving them to fend on their own.
How had they gotten here? That was the question Laura asked herself each dawn when they awoke to their breath pluming. Like all worthy answers, it was complicated.
Phil, Laura’s husband, had met Tom Schaeffer a few months after he got his engineering degree, his second Bachelor’s, and a few years after he and Laura had married. “There he was, a small, round Englishman with black framed glasses intently twirling this thing that looked like a miniature telescope. I asked him about it and his eyes lit up, and he explained it was a cylindrical slide rule and far more accurate than that ruler-like affair we Americans relied on. He had the kindest eyes I ever saw and I knew we were going to be friends from the first moment we met,” Phil always said.
Laura was introduced to Tom a few weeks later. She had been commissioned to get seats for The Tempest in Central Park. It was 1960, and none of them thought anything about working all day, standing in line (Laura was given the task because she could duck out of her job early) for tickets to Shakespeare, eating their picnic supper, then watching the performance until almost midnight. They were far too young to worry about how much sleep they were getting. Especially once they began to hang around with Tom Schaeffer, who had the energy of ten men, and who knew New York far better than they. It was Tom who introduced them to The Village Gate and other tiny theaters and clubs in Greenwich Village, to restaurants without signs and down several steps or up even more, to the enormous portions of Italian food at the Blue Grotto, to moussaka and retsina at Sayat Nova, to jazz at Jimmy Ryan’s. It was also Tom who took them sailing in a rented Rhodes 19 near Belle Isle off Norwalk on a cloudless Saturday, a wonderful, lazy day under such a lustrous deep blue sky they were astonished at its end to discover that they had acquired painful, lobster-like sunburns.
And it was Tom who convinced Phil, after he returned to England, to come to London to work. By then they’d had Jessica and bought a house in the suburbs, and Laura had quit her job and was beginning her career as a freelance writer.
“Although Kennedy’s brought a terrific surge of energy here, you two are clearly settling into early middle age,” Tom teased them when he visited in the summer of 1962. So before they knew it, Phil had a job in the same firm where Tom worked, and they had a flat near Notting Hill Gate, and they were on the plane to London where they planned to live for at least a year. Of course Tom was at the airport to meet them, collapsing with laughter when he saw that they’d dragged a potty for Jess across the Atlantic.
It would have been wonderful, except that less than three months after they arrived, Kennedy was assassinated, and they suffered a sense of dislocation they had never experienced before. But they were grown now, grown people don’t quit jobs and break leases because they’re homesick.
Still Laura was lonely, lonelier than she had ever imagined, and soon the London winter was closing in. She had thought it would be mild, and easy, and, to be fair, it was not nearly as cold as the New York suburbs, but she had forgotten about the longitude. And the consequent dark.
How sly that winter dark was! Slicing through the air like a knife, leaving nothing that resembled twilight or dusk, just blackness. And just before it struck, all those people who had greeted them in the playground scurrying home for tea, and she and Jess dashing through Kensington Gardens, earlier and earlier each day, as if they, too, had friends to meet around a warm fire and a steaming teapot; then, out of sight of anyone they might know, slowing down and wandering in and out of the shops, trying to stretch out their chores.
For those English who were perfectly friendly on the street clearly didn’t want strangers in their homes. Vainly Laura waited. When she gathered her courage and extended some invitations, she was refused. “Surely you understand,” they explained, “it’s almost Christmas, such a busy time.” For everyone except them. If only Tom were married, then she’d have one friend, but marriage was the last thing on Tom Schaeffer’s mind.
Determined not to be defeated, Laura planned treats; gaily she and Jess would dress in their best after Jess’s nap and skip the playground, going instead to the Tate or the National Gallery and meeting Phil for an early dinner. Or occasionally indulging in a real tea at the Dorchester or the Savoy, just the two of them. But most of the time they would meander home, stopping often at the library, then linger at the brightly lit windows, always standing for the longest time in front of the jeweler’s, Jessica’s favorite.
It was endless, that dark end of the day. Would Laura ever get used to it? The witching hour, she called it when they lived in New York, but there it was a hectic interval when her mother would call, or her sisters, or her friends, while she looked forward to Phil’s step through the door of their small house. Here, the days disappeared more quickly, so that at 3:30 they could feel the press of dark against them, as uncomfortable as a coat that is too tight, and after they bought dinner (they shopped daily because the refrigerator in their flat was smaller than the radio) and Laura began to prepare it, and Jess was bathed, there would still be more time to wait. Then they would climb into Laura’s bed, Jess relaxed and eager to hear whatever stories Laura could conjure. But after a while mother and child fell into a sweet helpless doze, weary with the strain of being so alone, of having to count so completely on each other.
So there was no question in Laura’s mind when the invitation came. As soon as Tom said, “You must come up to Arneside for Christmas, that way you’ll get to see the north of England, and the folks are expecting you,” she threw caution to the winds and accepted. Anything for a change, anything to get them out of London when all their new acquaintances would be with their families. Why even their staunch, helpful widowed neighbor who never seemed to go anywhere was disappearing for two weeks.
Then, remembering how disappointed she’d been in the park, and all those dim melancholy afternoons, she said, quickly, “Are you sure we’re not intruding?”
“Nonsense,” he replied, “no such thing as intruding at Christmas-time, they have insisted, it’s absolutely fine, guests at Christmas is what this holiday is all about.” Laura was so grateful she could feel her heart sing with relief. Of course they went.
Never suspecting what they might find.
After the first day they abandoned the idea of bathing Jess, whose teeth chattered so much when she got undressed that they put her to sleep in their bed, then made a sandwich of her to keep her warm. When they came to bed they would gently move her into her narrow cot, which stood in a corner, then pile their winter coats over her because her quilt was so thin and worn.
Judith had bragged about getting their fluffy down comforter in Germany when she was visiting cousins on Frank’s side. Why she hadn’t replaced the ancient child’s quilt would remain, forever, a mystery. Still, Jess didn’t seem to mind. Once she was asleep she was all right; the truth was that, despite Laura’s fears, they all slept quite happily through the night.
It was getting out of bed that was so excruciating.
And going down to the dark dining room where the food was as sparse as Laura had ever known. “Jessica must eat with the baby silver, it’s a tradition in this family,” Judith announced at their first meal. She then produced a beautiful setting of highly polished silver which matched the rest of the glistening flatware but was so worn that the handle of the spoon felt as thin as a reed. At the sight of Jessica’s sturdy fingers curling around it, Laura’s heart plummeted, then stretched towards her child as she watched her slowly savor the small triangles of bread and butter that Judith had placed on her plate,
“When you finish those you will get more,” Judith said almost kindly, “but only then. One of the rules in this house is that we don’t leave anything on our plates, not after living through the War. Right, Frank?” She turned to her husband for confirmation that her stubbornly frugal ways still made sense. “What a terrible time,” she added with an involuntary shudder.
“Waste not, want not.” Laura had heard the adage throughout her childhood, but she had never seen it put into practice quite this severely. And although it looked as if there was plenty of food, getting onto your plate was the trick in the Schaeffer household. Somehow, you felt morally corrupt if you asked for second or third helpings, which wouldn’t have been illogical, since the first helpings were so grudgingly small. They spent the first holiday of their life hungry.
“Doesn’t she know the war’s been over for almost 20 years, that she doesn’t have to scrimp this way anymore?” Laura demanded. “And it isn’t as if we could go into town to get a meal or even some snacks.” Laura and Phil had escaped for a walk by themselves on their third afternoon while Jessica napped. Tom had almost completely retreated into his book to avoid contact with these parents to whom he seemed to have very little to say. So completely that he had forgotten to offer the car to them for a few hours. Phil shrugged helplessly; like her, he was stymied.
Watching Tom with his parents Laura felt as if she’d barged in on a new friend naked, and for the first time in her life she was utterly speechless. With anger, and also pity.
Because, on paper, as Laura’s mother might have said, the Schaeffers were absolutely marvelous. Hearing what they had done during the War had filled Laura and Phil and everyone who heard it with admiration: they were Quakers and leaders in their community, Judith a city councilwoman for Liverpool, their home town, and Frank a biology professor at the university. When the War began and news of the Kindertransport spread, Judith and Frank decided to open their home to not only one or two Jewish children but to four sets of sisters.
“It was a brilliant idea, not to separate the kids from each other, and of course Mother conceived it. Not because she’s maternal, mind you, a less maternal woman never lived. But because it was the right thing, she’s always been wonderful about doing the right thing. Though she was a little taken aback when they were coming up to Liverpool from London.” Here Tom always hesitated, as if trying to decide for the millionth time whether or not to betray the mother he still clearly loved and admired. Then he would go on, “The Jewish girls told someone on the train where they were going, and a woman who knew Mother said, “Oh, no, you don’t want to go there, she’s a dreadful woman, a real cold fish,” so the girls got off at the station before Liverpool, and it was a terrible mess. The police called Mother and she had to go there and bring them home. When I saw her shepherding those eight girls, who looked like frightened birds, up the front walk I knew my life had changed forever. I also saw my mother humbled for the first time in my life.”
The Schaeffers had sheltered and fed and clothed and educated the eight girls through the War; after it was over Frank had gone down to London once a week to try to find surviving relatives, and slowly one, then another, had gone off with distant cousins or to university where they were, basically, on their own. Only one pair of sisters had remained close to the family, and the elder of them, Naomi, was one of Tom’s favorite people in the whole world. “But the parents were tough,” was all Tom ever said when he concluded the story and Laura questioned him about those sisters. She had never pressed him, sensing that they were nearing dangerous ground, but, she also realized, as she went over it in her mind, that she had not paid enough attention. She should have persisted and found out more. So she had only herself to blame.
“And where are your ancestors from?” Judith wanted to know the fourth day at breakfast. “They say that everyone in America is from somewhere else, don’t they? Except of course, the Indians. You do know what an Indian is, don’t you, Jessica, and I suspect you’ve probably seen one or two. They do wander around the cities now and again, I suppose, didn’t you once tell me that they helped build the big bridges, Tom? The Mohawks, wasn’t it?” Tom merely nodded, so Judith looked at Laura and Phil and repeated, “So where were they from? Your ancestors.” Her tone was solicitous, yet condescending, causing Frank’s head to pop up. Although he rarely said anything, he now flashed his wife a warning glance. Somehow it comforted Laura to know that Frank saw her as she was, confirming Laura’s suspicion that Judith could easily have done without the three of them this Christmas. And then, the important question: had Tom simply announced he was bringing them, or had he wheedled something like an invitation from them because it was the right thing? Laura didn’t know why it suddenly mattered to her, but it did.
She looked at Tom, but he remained imperturbable; the mask he seemed to have pasted on his face when they arrived had not altered a jot during their stay. While Laura was deciding how to begin, Frank said, “Pass the clotted cream, Judy.” Both Laura and Phil avoided calling either of the Schaeffer parents by name, but in Laura’s head, she was always Judith, and whenever Frank called her Judy she had to suppress a smile.
“My parents were born in the States, and their parents were from Poland,” Phil finally answered, “and Laura’s mother was born in New York but her family came from Austro-Hungary and Laura’s father came from Lithuania, near Vilna.”
By now Christmas had come and gone, and they had exchanged presents and that special English greeting, “Happy Christmas,” which was so much nicer, Laura thought than the American “Merry Christmas,” which somehow trivialized this important holiday. But despite their dark looks which had so struck Judith when they first arrived, no mention had been made of their being Jewish, so now Laura added, staunchly, “My father came from a family of rabbis. My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi who came to the United States in the ’20s, not long after my father came. My uncle, my father’s older brother, was a rabbi, too. But he insisted on remaining there after my father arranged for his brothers and sisters to go either to Palestine or the United States, and during the War he and his family were killed.”
“How very interesting. So you’re Jewish, I never would have thought so, to look at you. Or you.” Judith said and turned to Phil. “Your hazel eyes made me think you were Scandinavian. And you, Laura, could be Irish, with your fair skin.” Then, totally oblivious to any reaction she might be causing, she probed. “Was your uncle killed by the Germans?”
Laura shrugged, then replied, “Or the Lithuanians?” It was, for eternity, an open question. As soon as she had responded, though, Laura felt something shift, something larger than that patronizing, almost anti-Semitic acknowledgment of their Jewishness, and she knew she had piqued Judith’s interest. For the rest of the day, all during their walk along the edge of Morecambe Bay, Judith was, for the first time, content to let Tom walk with Frank and Phil while she tramped with Laura. As they walked Laura was reminded of Tom’s consolation their first night. He was absolutely right: Morecambe Bay, this large sweep of water on the west coast of England opening into the Irish Sea, was breathtaking. Just south of the famed English Lakes, it was more beautiful in its fullness—a wonderful teal in the morning, then a striking purplish blue in the afternoon that deepened to a coppery mauve at sunset. To gaze at its glistening surface made one feel all was right with the world. If not for their walk each day, Laura sometimes doubted that she could have survived this visit.
And today the sunlit air was sunlit and as crisp as the first apple of autumn at home. Astonishing weather for England in December, they all exclaimed. But Laura had no time to revel in the weather; now Judith was barking questions at her about how her parents and grandparents had observed their religion. Judith was a good questioner, specific and smart, and as she asked how many of those rituals and ceremonies still prevailed in Laura’s life, Laura realized, with a start, that she had left her religion home, that she and Phil had never even been to a synagogue in all these months in London, not even when Kennedy died. She felt vaguely ashamed and vowed to talk to Phil about it when they were in bed that night.
Of course Judith knew quite a lot about the Jewish holidays and customs; she had had eight Jewish children in her home and understood about Sabbath candles and fasting on Yom Kippur and the two seders at Passover and the lulav and the esrog on Succoth and Haman and Esther on Purim. But, somehow, she needed to hear it all again, almost as if she were searching for the exact moment when she had erred with those girls who had left her home after years of constant, daily interaction without so much—in six cases—as a look behind. As if she could discover why, despite adhering to the rules of their religion (she’d even kept a Kosher kitchen), she had not inspired more affection.
It was touching, even a little pathetic, and Laura wished she could tell her that she had done her best. But Laura couldn’t. She knew Judith was intelligent and well-connected; there had been lots of names dropped, Hugh Gaitskell this and Nye Bevan that, and she knew that Judith was on the right side in most social issues. Still, that didn’t make a life.
She had also seen the Schaeffers respond to Tom’s Christmas gift, and then Laura knew that the woman on that train from London to Liverpool so long ago had been right.
All the way up here on the M-4 Tom had chortled with glee that he had finally found a gift his parents didn’t have: emergency flares for their car when it broke down, and a membership in the English equivalent of Triple A so that they would never be in harm’s way on the road. But when he presented it to them, a dismissive harumph escaped Judith’s lips. “Thank you,” she said, “they’re certainly unusual and something we would never have thought of, not in a million years.” Her tone was dismissive, exactly the same voice she’d had when she greeted Jess with “a gypsy.” But this was her son, and she was talking to him as you might a stranger who had brought a few cakes of soap as a hostess gift. Then she quickly tucked the package in a corner as if it were exuding a strange, unpleasant smell.
Tom’s face fell, and in a flash Laura saw the expression of the small boy waiting at the window that day in 1939, just before the sisters arrived, and laughter entered that house where he had been the only child for almost nine years. The constantly disappointed mien of a youngster who feels he is doing something wrong but has no earthly idea what it is.
“Well, that was certainly an interesting discussion today, Laura, I thank you very much,” Judith said with her first real smile when they assembled for afternoon tea. I am always fascinated by the customs of other religions,” she added, as if she were an anthropologist and Judaism were some arcane sect that had been practiced for a few years in some obscure place.
Laura wanted to shout that Judaism was one of the great religions of the world, that Christianity had incorporated many of its ethical principles, and that Jews were certainly as important in the course of history as Judith’s beloved Quakers. Of course she didn’t.
Instead she pretended that she needed to search for a glove she had dropped on their walk, and she went back toward the Bay, retracing their steps, breathing as deeply as she could, trying to control the anger that surged up in her. What a strange contradiction the woman was, this whole visit was. Here they were in this shining landscape which stretched first to the Isle of Man and then to Ireland and was one of the most glorious places they would ever visit. Whose gentle radiance Laura knew she would forever be able to hold in her mind, but whose beauty would always be tainted by the house which was so claustrophobic and so hobbling that, if she could, she would wish eternally to forget every detail about it and the couple who lived there.
Laura stood very still, looking out over the water and sky which seemed to blend, then lengthen into the great beyond, as though the hand of some Michelangelesque God had painted it with the most luminous turquoise chiaroscuro possible. A sight possible only where the sea is not too far away. She stood there very still, filling her eyes to the brim, fixing the memory of the setting sun breaking through the clouds in glorious golden rays as exactly as she could. So absorbed she didn’t hear Phil approach. He put his arm around her shoulders and they both stood, silent. “Do you think we could simply leave, take a train back to London?” Laura asked in a small voice. They still had two more days and nights to endure.
Phil sighed. “I wish we could. The worst part of it is that she doesn’t hear herself, she doesn’t hear even now what impact her words make. I can’t understand how someone so intelligent could be so stupid. And, to be frank, I don’t know how we’re going to manage, I’m not sure I can endure turkey cooked one more way. But isn’t Jess remarkable, not one complaint,” he confided, then he paused.
When he spoke again his voice was firmer. “Much as we’d like to leave, we can’t. You know that, Laura. We can’t hurt Tom, and, you know as well as I do, that this is the best they can do. People usually do the best they can do, even if it falls far short of what we want, or hope for. And remember, she took in those four sets of sisters. A lot of people thought about doing things like that, but they didn’t. She did, that’s the important thing.” So reasonable, so sane. Completely irrefutable. Hearing her husband speak slowly, as he always did when he didn’t want to go over it anymore, Laura could feel the anger in her body, which always made her stiff as wood, begin to dissolve. Soon her hands and feet felt like the flesh they were. Reluctantly, arm in arm, they went back to the house.
Even though Jessica looked about to gag on the fourth supper of turkey a la king, Laura was more cheerful than she’d been since they arrived. Tomorrow they would go back to the flat in London, which suddenly had all sorts of virtues she had overlooked before. And the conversation tonight was more lighthearted, too, with Tom more like himself than he’d been during the whole visit. Now he was reciting some quips from Beyond The Fringe and they were all laughing when suddenly Jessica grasped Laura’s wrist and pointed. Luckily Judith had gone into the kitchen to get another bowl of overcooked vegetables.
The spoon in the set of baby silver had finally given away at the thinnest part of the handle and was floating in the goopy white sauce. Jess looked at her mother imploringly but Laura knew exactly what to do. Pretending Jessica’s portion had been too big she scooped some of it onto her plate and retrieved the two pieces of spoon, placed them on her lap, wiped them on her napkin and slipped them into her pocket. Gamely Jess used her fork and knife together for the rest of the meal.
Feeling the two pieces of spoon in her pocket Laura plotted: when they returned to London she would go to the jewelry shop Jess loved and she would find a matching spoon, then send a graceful note saying that she hadn’t wanted to tell them because she hadn’t wanted to spoil their holiday and here was the replacement for the spoon that had broken. All through the meal Laura encouraged Jess and once, when no one was looking, whispered into her child’s ear, “It will be all right, don’t worry, Mommy will make it all right.” Finally, Jess stopped giving her anxious looks, and as they finished their last meal here, Laura could feel her chest expand as she walked herself through all that would need to be done to get the right spoon and send it to Judith. Surely such a gesture of magnanimity toward someone who had been so ungenerous to them would give this difficult woman a needed lesson in humanity. Laura was so busy planning her strategy she didn’t make sure Jessica’s plate was clean.
When it was time to clear the dishes, Judith stared and thrust her forefinger at the child and said, coldly, “Jessica, finish your bread and butter. You’d think you would have learned by now. How many times do I have to tell you that in this house we don’t waste a morsel, we lived through a War!” Her voice was controlled, but her eyes were knives.
Finally, Jessica’s shoulders crumpled and she started to cry. While Phil whisked her upstairs saying, “She’s tired, and tomorrow’s a long day,” Laura sat there amazed that she wasn’t shrieking back at Judith whose voice was now raised with exasperation as she lectured Laura and Tom once more about how she and Frank had had to scrimp and scrounge during World War II. Giving vent to all her resentment against anyone, even people who had been American children during those frightful years.
But to be so cold and harsh to a little girl, a toddler? Is this what she did to those Jewish sisters? Why did she have to behave this way? Laura kept wondering as she sat there. Now she felt like an anthropologist whose task was to examine and ultimately explain that streak of beastliness that supposedly lies latent in all of us and that can erupt when you least expect it. But Laura felt totally frustrated, completely at sea.
After a few minutes she excused herself and went upstairs. As she left she heard Tom patiently telling his parents about Sampson’s book, then talking more about his work than he had in the entire span of their visit. But of course they were leaving for London at dawn tomorrow. And though she knew Tom would never refer to this incident or talk about the rest of the visit, she also knew there was nothing really to talk about. Besides, she couldn’t accuse him of using them as his buffer; she and Phil and Jess had needed to come here for Christmas as much as Tom had needed them to be here.
Tonight Laura didn’t even attempt to read Jess a bedtime story, so the little girl lay on her cot, her eyes still wide with fright, and watched her parents pack. They had been careful not to criticize the Schaeffers openly in front of her and they weren’t going to start now. But Laura felt that, as young as she was, the child understood everything, and she was tempted to sit on the edge of her cot and try to explain. But what would she say? What could she say? It was futile even to think about it. Finally, Jessica’s eyes grew heavy and she slept.
Just before they closed their suitcase Laura realized she had forgotten Jessica’s large bib, what the English called a “pinny” and which was far more practical than those small, washcloth affairs American kids wore. “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” she told Phil, then slipped back into her shoes and hurried downstairs to get it. The kitchen was dark, so she wasn’t on guard, but as she approached she heard voices. Slowly Laura began to back away.
Judith and Frank were putting things away by the moonlight that streamed through the kitchen window, and Judith was complaining, “Now where on earth is that damn baby spoon? It’s the only thing missing, and I can’t for the life of me remember where I put it. Oh, why is this bothering me so?”
Then Frank’s mild murmur, “Oh, Judith, it’s so old, it’s a miracle that handle was still intact. Let’s just forget about it, and when we have our first grandchild we’ll get another set, I promise you.”
That should have finished it. But Judith couldn’t leave it alone. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it broke and that girl simply threw it away, oh, she was so disapproving, I could feel it at every meal. I know I shouldn’t make such a fuss about the food but I can’t help myself, I’ve never been able to help myself about things like that. And her face when I chastised the child, as if I’d stabbed her. Oh, why did Tom inveigle us into this, it’s just been too much, much too much,” she began to stutter, her words sinking into a whimper, and then, Laura guessed, tears.
She didn’t wait to find out. She could hardly breathe. Turning on her heel, she ran through the hall and unlatched the front door, not even caring if they heard her. As though her life depended on it, she began to run towards the glittering blackness that was Morecambe Bay, and as she went, she drew deep into her lungs the fresh, moonlit winter dark.