She awoke to a light touch and someone stroking the long fair hair which was spread out over the pillow. No one had stroked her hair in a long time. Auntie ‘Nymph’ used to, Aoife thought. She used to stroke Aoife’s hair all the time. And Aoife’s mum had done so a long time ago. Aoife had photos of her parents, but she scarcely remembered them. Her uncle’s family was home now. And the action of having her hair stroked had attached to it a feeling she also scarcely remembered from three years ago.
But it came back, true and familiar: a warm, proud feeling; a feeling that she was loved and wanted; a feeling of peace and restfulness. Inhaling with content, Aoife smelled thyme in the sheets, a scent which had always been sacred to her aunt. Then suddenly without warning she began to cry: great, hot tears of sorrow. Then the person stroking her hair was holding her close and murmuring in low tones, and Aoife was smiling through her tears.
“I know it’s a lot,” her uncle was saying gently. “You have a huge burden for a girl of your age, and you are an absolute heroine. It’s no easy job you have been given, I know.”
“I try my best,” Aoife said through her tears. “But I worry about them.”
“So do I, and to no avail,” Sir Humphrey sighed. “You should really learn not to give in to unnecessary anxiety. I can’t do anything about it now I’m old and grey. But you’re still young. You can still change that.”
“Character is usually built most during the early teens and toddler age,” Aoife said. “I doubt if I can change it now.”
“Never mind. I don’t suppose they’d want you any different. They all love you so much. They respect you, and even Daniel really looks up to you.”
“I try,” Aoife said with a gulp. “Sorry I’m crying.”
“That’s alright. It all gets too much sometimes. We’re all better after a little cry, though I must admit women cry more than men. But I remember when your aunt used to cry every once in a while. Such little things set her off, but it was everything piling up and there comes a climax to everything. It always made her feel better to have a little cry. It should be her talking to you like this, really.”
“Oh, she speaks to me in my sleep, occasionally,” Aoife said. “But I know it’s really her talking through you. I don’t think you’d know the right words to say, Uncle. Not to a girl.”
“I wouldn’t,” her uncle agreed. “That’s why the girls need you so badly. Even Delia was only eight when she lost her mother, and she doesn’t remember all that much now. You and Daniel were most affected by that, I think.”
“And you,” Aoife whispered with a tiny smile, and Sir Humphrey smiled back with tears in his own eyes. How he missed his dear sweet wife!
“Well, they need a woman’s help in the growing years. I hope you will stay with us till then, at least.”
“Of course I will!” said Aoife easily. “I’m not twenty till November, Uncle, and I’m quite sure I don’t want to go to university.”
Sir Humphrey looked rather sadly at her. She, herself, didn’t know how grown up she was. To her for herself it was about age, though she was quite sharp enough to see that Daniel was old for his age.
“How is Delia?” Aoife asked at last, growing nervous at his lengthened silence.
“None the worse,” he responded. “Blaise went to bed when you roused a couple of hours ago, and your friend Vinzent left. Daniel has been in bed since about that time, and Rob too. Everyone’s fine. It’s just you I’m concerned about now.”
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” Aoife assured him, inwardly hoping that she wouldn’t be ill after all this. “I just had a few shocks; that’s all. What time is it?”
“Two in the morning. Lindy and Rob will take the children out for a walk in the morning, and they promised not to wake you.”
“What about you? Will you go for a walk?”
Sir Humphrey turned kindly eyes on his young niece. “My knees are giving me more trouble than they used to,” he said simply, amusement in his voice.
“But you aren’t that old!” protested Aoife.
“Shh, or you’ll wake the girls in the room next door. As for being old, I’m fifty-four this year, Aoife. That isn’t exactly young as you know it. And your aunt would have been fifty.”
Aoife hesitated for a moment or two, thinking this over.
“I never realised you were that old, because you’re almost as active as Rob, for instance, Uncle, but now I think about it…”
“My hair is grey and I’m getting a bald patch,” ended Sir Humphrey with a rueful chuckle. “I really am as old as my age, my girl. I’m not getting any younger, and, though in a much lesser way, neither are you. You make the most of your youth, dear. And when it comes to the point of leaving us, we’ll all understand. You need your own life, without any of us to worry about. We’ll find a way to manage when it comes. That’s all.”
Aoife gave him a last shy smile, not fully understanding what he meant, and her sharps ears just about caught his last murmured words: “Just right now I don’t see what we’d do without you.”
As his footsteps moved away, the words echoed in Aoife’s head, round and round, quieter and softer and more gently, and they became the tones of her aunt. The warm, round, tender tones of the aunt who had taken the place of a mother for seven years enfolded her lovingly, and Aoife fell asleep wrapped in an atmosphere of complete joy and relaxation.