The planes are flying impossibly low. When I look up, I can see their underside, I can see exactly where the bomb will drop from. The noise is deafening, and although I’m screaming, I can’t even hear my voice.
“Lea! Lea, wake up!”
I sit up, open my eyes and squint into the warm yellow light. The planes are gone. “What-”
Saul has his arms around me and his face is almost uncomfortably close to mine. But what would be uncomfortable by day is more than welcome at night. “It’s alright, Lea, you are home,” he whispers. “You are safe.”
I nod meekly. The domestic staff have learnt not to run in when they hear screaming from our room. They’ve already accepted it as normal. And I don’t even feel embarrassed anymore. It’s become a part of a routine. It happens to both of us. Tonight, it‘s my turn.
I reach for the glass of water on the nightstand. The water is lukewarm, although it was cold when Gemma brought it in the evening. It has to be well into the night.
Saul watches me intently as I lay the empty glass back on the nightstand and struggle with the blanket; my legs are all tangled up in it. “Good?” he asks.
I nod. He pushes back the damp strands of my hair and kisses me on the forehead, right below the scar near my hairline. “Do you want me to leave the light on?”
I shake my head. “No, switch it off.”
Light doesn’t help anyway. It’s not darkness I am afraid of.
Having breakfast together has become a new tradition after the war. I‘m not used to Saul being almost always at home. Sometimes, I even miss my lonely days from the early stage of our marriage, or my single life in Tewkesbury. I leave the house way more often than he does. I need to feel the freedom, see the world, do something, I need to live. Whenever I stay still and close myself between four walls, it all comes back and I start doubting that I’m really alive.
Mrs. Wintercourt is sitting at the table when we arrive, drinking tea. Senator Wintercourt is already gone. Since the announcement of the new elections, we almost haven‘t seen him, if we don‘t count the appearances on television or his face on the billboards all over Berkshire. He is busy giving speeches, attending events and trying to make people like him enough to reelect him.
“Have you got any plans for today?” Mrs. Wintercourt asks when Gemma pours us tea and leaves the dining room.
Saul stays silent. He never has any plans.
“I’m going to London,” I say. “I want to visit Claire before I go to the Scandinavian Union. The trial is next week.”
“I am not sure if doing such thing is right,” Mrs. Wintercourt says without lifting her eyes from the plate. “Especially when your father-in-law is running for Senator again, and that horrible Judy Joyce will do anything to get his chair.”
I look at Saul, who rolls his eyes secretly. Mrs. Wintercourt hates her husband’s rival with a passion, almost as if Judy Joyce were the Senator’s mistress. Or maybe this hatred is even stronger.
“It’s not Saul going to the Scandinavian Union, it’s me,” I say calmly and spread some butter on my toast. “This is my battle, not his, and it has nothing to do with the Senator.”
“You are his wife,” she says matter-of-factly. “Everything that you do has to do with him, and therefore also with his father.”
“All right,” I sigh. “Then the Senator will simply have to be so convincing that his daughter-in-law’s excesses won’t matter.”
“For God’s sake, Eleanor, you are so stubborn!” she exclaims.
“Yes, and most of my life it was my stubbornness that’s kept me alive. So I would like to keep that part of me unchanged.”
“Saul,” Mrs. Wintercourt says and looks at him. “You have nothing to say to it?”
“To what?” Saul asks. “She is doing what she thinks is right, and I also think it’s right. Besides, I’m only glad that this brother she’s adopted is better than the first one. At least he hasn’t tried to kill me.”
I smile. “I’m not really sure if I’ve adopted him. More likely Viktor has adopted me as his big sister.”
Saul returns the smile. I pick up my cup and sip on the tea.
“When will you finally understand that it’s not a game, Eleanor?” Mrs. Wintercourt hisses.
“But it is a game, Catherine,” I say quietly. “A high game, for sure, and a dangerous one, but it’s still a game. And I want to play it as well as I can.”
“Win or lose, you will destroy us all,” Mrs. Wintercourt mumbles.
I put the cup back on the saucer, more fiercely than I intended to. It collides with the spoon, which falls on the table. Saul reaches for my hand over the table. “It’s going to be alright,” he says.
“I wish I could believe that,” I say and get up. “I need to get ready. Claire will be waiting for me.”
The sanatorium is an old building in the East End, surrounded by a large park. It’s a sunny day, so it allows us to go outside. I walk slowly, keeping my step steady as Claire’s wheelchair rolls next to me. Her arms fall out of rhythm every now and then, as she is not yet fully accustomed to it and her arms aren’t strong enough. But I don’t offer her my assistance. I know she would ask for it if she needed it. She is not as damn proud as I am. I wouldn’t ask for assistance in a million years.
We stop under a large linden tree that offers a nice shade. I sit on the white painted metal bench under the tree and Claire parks her wheelchair so that she is half-facing me, but still can see the small pavement and watch the people walking around us.
“How are you?” I ask. “Any word of when they could discharge you?”
“Not yet,” she shakes her head. “I’m still doing the rehabilitation, so until I’m finished, it would be of no use to go home and then come here every day. It would be impossible, actually.”
“Does it help? The rehabilitation?”
“Well, I’m making progress,” she shrugs. “At least now I can sit in this chair for more than ten minutes without suffering. The pains have diminished a great deal, so I’m not on that awful medication that always turned me into a half-dead creature.”
I smile. “That’s good to hear.” I reach for my bag. “I brought you something to read.”
“Oh, thank God!” she exclaims. “I’ve read those books and magazines I have at least four times.”
I pull out a stack of magazines and a book that I picked up quite blindly, as I am not an avid reader. I added some chocolate, because I know that Claire loves it. Even in Akershus, she kept a few tables of chocolate in her suitcase, allowing herself a piece every now and then, after a hard day. I did the same with cigarettes.
“Thank you,” she says. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Your family wasn’t here?” I ask.
“They are coming this weekend,” Claire says and pauses as an elderly couple walks past us, arm in arm. “It’s quite a long way from Pembrokeshire.”
We are silent for a while. Normally, I’d tease her about this young man she met here in the sanatorium, ask her if they were still corresponding, or I’d speak about mundane things as we usually do. Sometimes we remember that we are not really best friends, that we are rather friends united by something we’ve gone through together. We don’t have the same interests, we are not of the same age, we don’t know the same people. Our friendship is an isolated island in the sea of war.
“I’m going to the Scandinavian Union next week,” I say.
Claire looks at me. “That soldier of yours?”
I nod. “Almost everyone keeps telling me it’s pure madness. My in-laws are considering strangling me for the sake of the good name of the family. They don’t understand why I want to do such thing.”
“And you?” Claire asks. “Do you know why you want to do it?”
“Because I have to do it,” I say. “Because I owe it to him. Because I...”
Claire keeps looking at me calmly.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” I breathe out.
“Then you should do it,” she says. “Tell them what you have to tell. If nothing, at least your conscience will be clear.”
I nod slowly. A leaf falls from the tree in my lap. I pick it up and turn it between my fingers like a child’s toy I used to have, one that was supposed to make noise when turned quickly.
“Do you remember that soldier who shot me?” she asks.
I lift my eyes to her. It’s the first time she actually speaks about it. We don’t speak of Akershus here. Nobody who’s come back likes to speak of anything that’s happened in the Scandinavian Union.
“I forgave him, because I felt like it was the right thing to do. I was angry, I still am angry... I can’t walk, I’ll never be able to walk again, and I’ve been in constant pain for almost a year now... But although it was his bullet that caused it... Was it his fault?”
“No,” I whisper. “It was not his fault. Nor yours, nor Viktor’s. It was my brother’s, and perhaps mine in a way, and that’s why I have to do this. If anyone deserves to die here, and I don’t believe that there is this need, I still deserve it a great deal more than him.”
Claire lowers her eyes. “I forgave him because he deserved forgiveness. I thought... if he was going to die, then I couldn’t have let him die with that burden on his soul. And my forgiveness was the only thing I could give him.”
“Maybe I can give more,” I say. “But I’m afraid. I’m afraid to go back there, to meet those people… I’ve never been afraid of anything, or at least I’ve never let it get to me, but now I am. I know I probably shouldn’t be saying this…”
“No,” Claire says. “You should say this. Do you know why I volunteered that day to go to the front?”
I shake my head.
“I wanted to be like you,” she whispers. “You were so fearless, so brave, you were doing so much for all of them because you weren’t afraid, and I… I felt like compared to you, I was useless. Giving them pills and taking temperature, what good was that, I thought? I told myself that I needed to do something, so that I wouldn’t be the one afraid of seeing people die… you thought that of me, or at least I thought that you did. So I volunteered. And now I’m here. If you admitted that you were afraid back then, I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t be here.”
“Claire,” I whisper and take her hand. “I so wish I did. But I couldn’t have. Back then, I wasn’t afraid. I had nothing to lose. While now… I care. And we start to be afraid when we start to care.”
Alfie is waiting for me in the car. When I sit in the back seat, he folds his newspaper and smiles at me in the rear mirror.
“To Windsor?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Anything interesting in the paper, Alfie?”
“Politics mostly, ma’am, if you’re interested.”
“No, thank you, I’ll leave that to my in-laws,” I laugh. “I’ve already heard about Judy Joyce leading in the polls already, anyway.”
“It’s too early for it to be important,” Alfie says and drives out of the main gate.
“Yes. And I haven’t been to the Scandinavian Union yet,” I say bitterly. “After that, as my mother-in-law thinks, the Senator will lose the elections and our family will have to go into exile.”
Alfie laughs. “If you ask me, ma’am, I don’t know why it should matter.”
“Because I am defending a Scandinavian soldier, perhaps?” I frown.
“Yes,” Alfie says. “One soldier. Not the Scandinavian army, nor their actions, on the contrary, you are defending him because he didn’t do what the rest did, am I right?”
“You are,” I sigh. “But I’m not sure that the rest of the Republic will see it this way. And we all know what the media are able to do. With my first husband, I never even testified at court nor did I ever speak to the media, I was just present in the courtroom, that was it. And the media managed to portray me in a way that made my former friends spit under my feet. If someone tried to shoot me after I come back, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
I lean back in the seat and look out of the window. We are going down the only open road. On my right, all of the streets are being repaired after the war, with buildings hidden behind scaffolds.
“You know what’s so sad about this, Alfie?” I say quietly. “That I knew my husband for so long, and I was wrong about him all the time. And I only knew Viktor for a few months or weeks, but I know that I am doing the right thing. With Edmond, everything was always so obscure, there were things I didn’t know and didn’t wish to know, but… in the Scandiavian Union, you couldn’t hide from anything. When you are in the middle of nowhere, you are an open book.”
“Then do what you think is right, ma’am,” Alfie says. “The people who love you will stand behind you. And the others are not worth worrying about.”
“But they can still kill you,” I smirk. “I think I better focus on who I’m doing this for than who I am standing against. Otherwise I wouldn’t find the courage to leave the house.”