by Eildon Rhymer
A family gathering
It was almost time.
Will sipped his orange juice. The ice cubes chimed together, then drifted down again. They were beaded with specks of air, like raindrops caught out of time. He watched them settle, then raised the glass to his lips again. The juice was sweet and sharp, and still cold enough to hurt, even though his hands were melting the ice, making it bleed colourlessly into the orange.
People swirled past him. Their chatter was all of the here and now, but it was not so difficult to think of it as the chatter of centuries. The people were wisps of memory. Their faces were like the faces of ghosts, and soon they would fade away, and he would remain, alone.
He raised his glass again. The ice cubes were smaller, fading, gone.
A swirling figure stopped. Indistinct features smiled, and became the face of his brother James.
"Cheer up, Will." James slapped him heartily on the back. "Why're you standing there like that?"
Will blinked. "Like what?"
James watched him expectantly. Feeling awkward, Will began to take another sip of his drink, but James crowed in triumph. "Like that! Standing there, concentrating on your drink, as if it's the most interesting thing in all the room. That's what people do when they're nervous." He said the word as if it was disgusting. "And do I see correctly? Is that only juice?"
"Yes, just juice." Will gave a faint half smile. "You know I don't drink."
James laughed. "Ah, one day, dear brother, I'll change you." He clapped Will on the back again, almost hard enough to hurt, and went off laughing, calling for more wine.
"You never could," Will murmured. He drained the last mouthful of juice. "And now it's too late."
His hands felt empty when he had laid the glass down. It felt as if his last protection had gone. Words whirled around him, but now the faces of the people that uttered them were clear and sharp. He knew each and every one of them. He knew their names, and their birthdays, and lists of facts about each one. My family, he thought.
He drifted close to Max and Barbara. "Have you decided whether to get a puppy?" Max was asking.
"I don't know," she replied. "The children want one, but I'm not so sure. You get attached to an old dog, you know? I don't want to be hasty."
Old dog? Will thought. Her dog died? Max was nodding sympathetically. Should I have known that? Will almost drifted forward, but stopped himself. The conversation carried on.
Perhaps he would get another drink. He turned sideways to squeeze through a narrow gap between two huddles of conversation. An elbow jogged him. An uncle murmured an apology, and someone else laughed, but he thought the laughter was nothing to do with him. Distant and fading, Max and Barbara were still talking about dogs. Most of the others were talking about children, but some were talking gravely about the state of the world, about crime and impending war.
Will turned away from those, too.
A large man came up to him, looking older than his years. "Hello, Will."
"Robin." Will nodded a greeting.
"Long time no see," Robin said.
"No," Will agreed. "Not since…" He trailed off. The last time the family had been gathered together had been at their father's funeral, two years before.
"Well…" Robin shrugged. "You should come and visit some time. You're not that far away. Barely two hours, really. The boys talk about you a lot."
"Really?" That bit, at least, was a surprise.
"They think you're mysterious." Robin chuckled. "I think they think you're some sort of international spy, what with all those unexplained absences and the, er, interesting presents. Of course, I keep telling them that you're just my kid brother, but you know what children can be like. Don't understand it myself, though."
"Oh," Will said. "They're wrong, of course." Robin said nothing. "About me being an international spy." Robin was not looking at him. "I'm just an immortal wizard, the last of his kind, keeping watch over mankind to make sure no old evils rise again to threaten them."
"Ha ha," Robin said. "You always were the joker."
Will blinked. "No, I wasn't."
Robin looked at him. "No, you weren't." He drained at least half of his glass of wine. "Wouldn't it be funny if you were, though? Watching over the world…" He gave a harsh laugh. "You must be pretty bad at it. I mean, the things we see on the news every day…"
"They're man's own doing," Will said, "done by their own free will. Things like that have to take their course."
Robin grimaced. "This is too deep for me." He clapped Will briefly on the shoulder. "See you around, mate."
Will watched him as we went to get another drink. James was already the drinks table, deliberating between two wines. Perhaps he would go and find something to eat instead, Will thought. Perhaps the aching hollowness inside him was caused by hunger. He often forget to eat, or failed to notice the passing of days.
"Will! Have you heard?" Mary cried gleefully as he passed. "They just phoned back. I've got the job!"
"You… Oh. Well done!" Will congratulated her. "That's great!"
He had not realised that she had applied for one. She had probably told everyone the night before, but he had been… away. Paul or Stephen might have noticed his hesitation, but Mary had always been self-absorbed. She saw in his response just what she expected to see. He could have said anything at all. He could have been absent entirely, so there was just nothingness where he was standing.
After she had gone, he wondered for a moment what job she would be doing, but he did not call her back and ask.
The buffet table was deserted, and nearly empty. A few nuggets of some indeterminate substance sat dejectedly on a plate, and shreds of lettuce and cress lay scattered across the table cloth, looking like the aftermath of a riot. Will hesitated a moment, then reached for one of the nuggets.
"I wouldn't if I were you," Stephen said.
Will frowned at the brown lump of batter. "Do you know something I don't know?"
Stephen gave a wry laugh. "No, but I saw the children descend on the scraps like a swarm of starving locusts. I'm willing to bet that anything left over has been sat on, or dropped, and had something unspeakable done to it."
"In that case…" Will put the nugget back on the plate. "These children… Tell me we weren't this bad when we were young."
"You were worse," Stephen stated, with a chuckle. "The bane of my life. You've no idea how hard it is to be fifteen, trying so hard to seem manly and impressive, when you've got eight little brothers and sisters crawling around underneath your feet, putting glue in your hair, being sick all over your leather jacket…"
"I never did!" Will cried, but there was a deep place inside him that was not as cold as it had been just a moment before. Stephen had been his hero right through his childhood, until his eleventh birthday when he had stopped being a child.
"No, not you, perhaps," Stephen said. "James was always the worst. But…" He sighed. "Still, something must have gone right. Look at all these children our brothers and sisters keep on having. How many is it now?"
"Twenty-three so far," Will replied. "That's counting yours, of course."
He had not said it with reproach, but Stephen apologised nonetheless. "I'll bring them over one day, I promise. The flight…"
"I know," Will assured him. Stephen had settled in Antigua following his service with the Royal Navy, and came home rarely, and always alone. "It doesn't matter, really."
Stephen took a step back, and studied Will, a strange expression on his face. "You know, I think you mean it. The others all say it, but…"
"Of course I mean it," Will said. He made his mouth smile.
Stephen ignored him. "It's as if you're not really one of us," Stephen said. "You stand there, and you smile, and you listen, but you're…"
Will turned away, closed his eyes, let the words drift away to nothing. He ate the nugget after all, and it tasted of ashes. "I think they did something to it, after all," he said, when he could speak again. He smiled, and Stephen laughed, but a shadow lay long on the room, and the cold place inside him was like ice, and hurting.
Then Stephen left him, grabbed joyously by Gwen and her youngest, dragged away laughing by both hands. He seemed to grow taller as he went away, as if the uncomplicated warmth of their laughter expanded him. With me, he feels a weight, Will thought. He doesn't know why, but he feels it. They all do.
Skirting the laughing groups, he walked to the open patio doors that led into the garden. He stopped just outside, on the cusp between sunshine and shadow. Most of the children were out in the light, playing and shrieking. They were making dens in the undergrowth, stalking each other, conducting elaborate games of pretending.
"I don't think I ever did that," Will murmured.
"What?" asked Paul.
Will snapped his head around. Paul was leaning against the side of the house, as if basking in the shadow. Will stood and watched him, but he did not smile. Paul did not smile back.
"Play," Will said. "Even before…" He stopped.
"You were always different from the others," Paul said quietly. "They say I was, too."
"You are different," Will found himself saying.
There was a sensitivity to Paul that came, perhaps, from the same place as his gift for music. Music was a form of magic, after all, and long ago musicians had been magicians in truth. A thread of that remained. Sometimes Paul looked at Will, and Will thought, He knows! Then, when the glimmer of nascent knowledge died in Paul's eyes, Will could think, more quietly, One day, he will know. One day… And he yearned for it, and was terrified of it, both at the same time.
"Well, yes." Paul have a self-deprecating smile. "Different is one way of putting it, I suppose."
Will was slow to realise what Paul meant, and he blushed as he did so. Paul was secure in his sexuality, but not everyone in the world felt the same. "I didn't mean that."
Paul's smile faded. "I know you didn't, Will. I'm sorry. It was a clumsy attempt to… to deflect…"
"It really doesn't matter," Will said.
"No," Paul said, fixing Will with his deep eyes. "It never does with you, does it? I remember… I don't know why I remember it, but I do… You must have been eleven or twelve, and Mary was doing her teenage girl thing, screaming at you about something or other, but you just sat there quietly and didn't respond one little bit... I remember James laughing, thinking it was a great trick, because the less you responded, the more furious Mary got. But it was no trick. I knew that. Nothing she said made any difference to you at all. Nothing."
First Stephen, and now Paul. Will had no idea how to respond.
"And you were always like that," said Paul. "A little apart. Quiet. Not quite with us, even when you were a baby. You always seemed older than you were."
"Not like now," Will tried to joke. His family frequently commented on how young he looked. He was thirty-two, but he looked a decade younger.
"No, you still seem older than any of us," Paul said seriously. "I used to envy you, you know. I made my own space in my head and barricaded it with music, but it was hard, with so much bustle all around me. You made it seem so effortless."
"I didn't…" Will's words dried up. He was very aware of the garden at his back. Beyond the garden were fields, and the fields led to hills, and the hills were quiet and ageless, flowing with the power that asked no questions, but just was.
"The others were made for this life, but you and I, Will, should have been born into a smaller family," Paul said. He made as if to clasp Will by the forearm, but did not. "And here we are, the only two of the Stanton clan without children of our own. Fated by birth, was it?"
"I think it was," Will said, for neither of them could help the way they had been born.
Paul's eyes went distant and dreamy. What did mortals dream of, Will wondered. Did they yearn for the vast impossible things that they could never know? Or was it only small and human things that they dreamed about, like jobs, and children, and love?
"Where's Jon?" Will asked, to break the sadness in his brother's eyes.
Paul smiled, as he always did when his partner was named. "Gone for a walk. He's an only child, and finds these enormous family gatherings quite alarming."
"You should have gone with him," Will said. "No-one would have minded."
"No." Paul pushed himself away from the wall. "These things are important, and no matter what I say…" He raked his hair back from his brow with his elegant musician's fingers. "I wouldn't be without them, you know."
Squaring his shoulders, Paul walked into the house. Several voices cried his name. Hands closed on his arms, and dragged him into the warm and beating heart that was the family.
It was cooler outside than Will had expected, even in the sun. He wrapped his arms around his body, and headed out into the garden. The words that he might have said to Paul still lingered in his mouth, unsaid. He knew that he would never say them aloud, not to anyone.
The children were playing and laughing, and Will smiled a little to see them. Two boys were fighting with sticks, dreaming of glory and King Arthur. I met him, Will thought, but you will never know that. No-one will ever know.
"Uncle Will!" one of them called to him. "Grandma wanted to see you."
"Wanted?" Will asked. "Not wants?"
"She told me to run and get you," the boy replied, "but I didn't want to stop what I was doing. It's boring inside. But I've told you now."
"You have," Will agreed. "And don't worry. If she complains that I'm late, I'll tell her it's my fault."
"It was only about an hour ago," the boy said. "I'd have told you when they called us in for supper."
"I don't think they'll call you in for supper until they've eaten most of it," Will confided in them. "You left them hardly any lunch. You can't go starving your elders to death, now, can you?"
The boy lowered his sword. "They wouldn't do that, would they?"
"Grown-ups," Will told him, as he walked on, "are capable of anything."
He heard their scattering footsteps, and smiled to himself. After they had gone, he remembered that he had forgotten to ask them where his mother was. Not that it mattered. He could locate her with minimal effort. For today, at least, he was still bound to her by family ties.
She was sitting in the hotel's flower garden, leaning back on a carved wooden bench. He came up behind her silently, and watched her for a while. Today was her seventieth birthday, and she had borne ten children, but there was nothing worn about her. She was an active and vigorous gardener, and she regularly led the local ramblers on sturdy walks that left people twenty years younger than her panting with exhaustion.
She was his mother, the first and earliest memory of the human aspect of his life. The woman who had nursed him through childhood illness, held him when he cried, rebuked him when he deserved it, and fought for him when he did not.
He would never see her again.
He blinked, but they could not be tears that blurred his vision so. He had not cried in twenty years. And this was right, he told himself. This was the only thing to do.
He took a breath to speak to her, but she got there first. "Come on, Will. Don't just stand there watching me, pitying this frail old thing on her chair."
"I wasn't," Will protested, but he walked forward. "And how did you know I was there? I thought I was quiet."
"Oh, you were," she said, smiling. "But I'm your mother. When you've brought up nine children, you get used to knowing where they all are, even if they don't want you to. Call it a second sight we mothers have."
Will stood facing her. Her voice was light and her eyes were merry, but he could see the sadness that lay beneath them. She had been widowed for two years, and none of her children lived at home.
"Don't just stand there," she chided him. She shuffled along to one end of the bench, and patted the seat beside her. "Sit down."
"Yes, mum." He obeyed her. They watched a thrush settle on the ground, glance around briefly, then fly on. They were rare now, when not long ago they had been common. Will was careful to look at it only as a mortal might do. His mother followed it with her eyes until it was gone, and did not turn back again. "You wanted to see me?" he prompted her.
She turned back towards him, her eyes misty. "No." She shrugged. "I just asked where you were. I don't get to see you much, it seems. Will. My littlest boy. My baby."
She ruffled his hair. He did not protest.
"It's not as if you live very far away," she continued. "You can drive it in half an hour."
"I know." He lowered his head. "I've been a disappointment…"
"Don't be stupid." She slapped him on the arm. "I'm just saying what some of the others say, those silly old ladies down in the village. You don't have to see someone to be close to them."
"No," he said faintly.
"That's why I came out here." She was looking earnestly at him, as if trying to convey a message that he could not read. "My seventieth birthday party, and the guest of honour absents herself. And have they noticed? No, don't answer. They probably haven't. And I don't mind one little bit. They're together, talking, strengthening bonds… They're probably doing it a lot more naturally because I'm not there. If I was there, they'd feel they had to put me at the heart of it all, and that would be distracting."
"But you're…" he stammered. "Aren't you…?" Lonely, he wanted to say, but he could not.
"I feel them here." She pressed her hand, not to her chest, but to his. He flinched at the touch. "You can bring people together without being the centre of things."
"Why…?" He swallowed hard. "Why are you…?"
"Why am I talking like this?" She gave a light laugh. "I don't know. I'm an old woman, and it's my birthday. I'm allowed to act a little strangely, aren't I?" She sighed. "And it just seemed to me that you needed to hear it."
"I just want things to be like they used to be," he blurted out.
"Oh, Will." She put her arm around her shoulder, and drew him into her embrace. "Dad's gone. My babies are all grown up, with children of their own. I've got twenty-three grandchildren, but inside I still feel as young as you are. Things change. That's how life is. But the really important things stay the same. You'll always have your family. Whatever else happens, you've always got that to come back to."
But I haven't, he thought, closing his eyes. I can't have
She hugged him closer, kissed him on the brow. "You're still my little boy."
He let her hold him for a very long time, until the others came from the house, shouting for them; until the sun had turned and covered them in shadow; until he had almost lost the strength to do what he knew he had to do.
But she released him.
"I think it's time for supper, Will," she said gently. "Oh, I've gone stiff. Help me up?"
He stood up, blinking dazedly into the world of shadows and emptiness. It felt impossibly cold, now she was no longer holding him. Voices shouted from the house, but he did not hear them as words, only sound.
"No," he whispered. He took a step back.
"Will?" She looked puzzled, then she looked hurt.
"I'm sorry." This time it was not even a whisper.
She stood up, and reached towards him.
Will raised his hand, five fingers spread wide. "Forget," he said. His voice was firm, not even a crack in it. He moved his arm, encompassing everyone in the hotel, everyone in the garden. He reached deep, tore himself out of their lives and their memories, erased all trace that he had ever existed.
"Forget," he said. Then he turned and walked away, alone.
She stood outside the door, and smiled, waved again, waved again, and smiled.
"Good luck next year!"
"I'll miss you, too."
Only a few remained. A girl came up and shyly presented her with a parcel, its impeccable wrapping clearly done by her mother. "Thank you for teaching me this year, Miss Drew."
Jane took the gift with a smile. "Ooh, is this for me? Thank you so much. I wonder what it is?" She opened it carefully, and found that it was chocolates, of the very expensive sort. Clearly the mother had chosen the gift as well as wrapping it. "My favourites!" Jane lied. "Thank you so much, Amelia."
Amelia was led away by her mother. "Do come back!" Jane cried out, loud enough for everyone to hear. "Let me know how you're doing."
Most of them would not, of course. She would see them at the start of the next school year, looking small and lost and overwhelmed in their new school uniforms. For the first few weeks, they would flock to her when they saw her in the street, clinging to the security that she represented. Within a few months, though, they would be settled into their new schools, confident and old and far too grown up to seek out their old primary school teacher. She would see them around the village, but that would be all.
She let her smile die. A few more left with only a mumbled word, and barely a glance at her. Not that she blamed them. It was hard to say goodbye, and still harder to find the right words when you were only eleven, when your parents were standing behind you hissing loudly at you to be polite. She knew she had done a good job with them. She saw it every day in the way they responded to her questions, in the way they clamoured to join in, in their eyes. They were a good class, and she would miss them.
"Thanks, miss," a voice mumbled.
She smiled again, turning round to see Joshua, one of the tougher boys in the class. He had gone through school with the reputation of being a trouble-maker, destined for nothing but failure, but she had refused to treat him as such. Although he had not blossomed, he had done well, far better than anyone else had expected.
"It was fun," Joshua said. He looked more awkward than she had ever seen him. "I never used to like school. You could have… you know… but you didn't…"
"I had fun, too, Joshua," she said. "I won't forget you. I'm sure you'll do wonderfully in your new school."
He mumbled something, and rushed away. There had been no gift, no expensive chocolates, but she felt that he had given her the most important gift of all. Brushing away tears, she caught the year five teacher looking at her as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, and was amused by it. Yes, I know it's a cliché, she thought, but better that than your coldness. Mr Hanson treated everyone, adult and child alike, with irony and detached amusement. She sometimes felt that the first half of every year was spent in teaching her children how to be human again, after a year with him.
The last of them had gone. "Well, that's that," Mr Hanson said. "Seven weeks without the snivelling brats. Oh, what a chore! I wonder what I'll do with my time."
"Evaluate, plan, prepare…" said Louise Mayhew, who taught year one. "But not yet. I plan to forget about school completely for at least a month. I need it. I feel like a zombie."
"I can't forget," Jane found herself saying. "I don't like to forget."
"Ah, but it's harder for you," Louise said, with all the wisdom of someone who had been teaching for all of two years. "You've got year six. You send them out into the big wide world. You're bound to worry about them. We see our little ones come back the next year. We can watch them grow. We know they're in good hands. Well…" She lowered her voice. "Except for Emma, who knows her lot are getting him next year." She jerked her chin towards Mr Hanson, who was already half way back to the main building.
Jane watched the last car drive away, the last child disappear around the corner. She looked beyond, at the green hills and the hedgerows, at the roofs and the birds and the drifting clouds. "It's not that," she said quietly. "I just don't like to forget. Anything, I mean. People shouldn't forget."
Louise chuckled. "I can think of lots of things that people should forget. Bad dates. What it was like to be fourteen." She paused for a moment, and said in a different voice, "The things we see on the news…"
Jane shook herself. "I'm sorry. I'm just in a strange mood…"
"The end of term does that to you," Louise said briskly. "Go on holiday. Recharge your batteries. You can't give your whole life to your job."
"Are you going anywhere nice?" Jane asked.
Louise started telling her. I should listen to this, Jane told herself. I should absorb every word, memorise it, keep it forever. But her thoughts were drifting, and the words seemed to mean nothing. Louise was talking about drink and sun and fit young men on some far distant beach. Only six years younger than me, Jane thought, but it seems like so much more. She felt old and staid sometimes, but at other times she felt young and innocent and tiny.
"Have you ever been there?" Louise asked.
Jane shook her head. "I usually holiday in Britain, if I go away at all."
"Hey, why don't you come next year?" Louise nudged her conspiratorially. "We always go in a group. You'll fit right in. Learn to live a little."
"I don't think…" Jane began. "Maybe," she said. She looked at the clouds gathering on the southern horizon. She often thought there was pictures in the clouds, but when she turned to look at them, they were always gone. "I thought I might go to Cornwall," she murmured. "Or Wales. I think I went to both of them when I was young."
"Oh well…" Louise shrugged. "Best get back to the classroom. The quicker I get started, the quicker I'm out of here." She looked back anxiously after a few steps. "Don't get me wrong. I love my job. It's just…"
"You don't have to explain," Jane said. "I know."
She watched Louise walk away. She watched a tendril of plant hanging down from a gutter, and watched a piece of chocolate wrapper twitch sluggishly on the playground. She watched a bird settle on a tree, and saw a cat in a far window start twitching as it watched it, gnashing its teeth in a token attempt to chase it. She watched the flashes of silver that were distant cars on the hill, some of them bringing tourists to the village, some of them carrying her children home.
She watched them all. Every moment, she thought. Every memory. She would hoard each one, and then, when she got home, she would write them down in her diary. She had shelves of them, recording every moment of her waking life, and all the dreams that stayed with her. She never looked at them again, but there were there, just in case. They were her insurance.
Because once, long ago, she had forgotten something.
end of chapter one