The park seemed positively dismal to Mary as she walked arm in arm with Isobel, Eli hurling himself toward a group of ducks and shrieking with delight. She wondered if things had always seemed this bleak, and then shook herself inwardly for being melodramatic. Of course things looked bleak; it was January, there was frost on the grass, the trees were bare and the surrounding city had been bombed into oblivion. London was a very big place and she knew there were areas that had come through so far relatively unscathed, but looking around her it was difficult to believe.
Isobel walked beside her, patiently waiting for some topic of conversation to come up, no matter how inane. She was determined not to be the one to speak first, and it was proving rather difficult. Looking at her sister-in-law, Isobel saw a desolate hopelessness in Mary’s face that she had no clue how to combat.
They had never been at all similar, Isobel tall with a willowy sort of grace you couldn’t teach and Mary, shorter, brunette and the kind of face that you felt understood you. Their professions had reflected this well; Isobel had been a dancer before the war, Mary a midwife. Isobel remembered how worried George had been about the two of them meeting, worried that the harshness of the ballet world would cause Isobel to think she was competing for something. Worried Mary might not like her and change her mind about marrying him. He had always worried too much, always cared too much. He felt everything so intensely, Isobel had once felt as though there was something wrong with her because she quite often didn’t care at all. She tried not to think of him at all these days, out on the front. He was probably caring too much.
As it had turned out George had been absolutely right to worry. Isobel had hated the petite pixie girl who pulled her brother’s gaze about the room wherever she moved. Isobel hated the brunette with the blue eyes that was perfectly polite and well-mannered. She didn’t suppose Mary had it in her to hate anyone, but she went as far as dislike, especially for Isobel.
Still, whatever else had happened, they were family now. George was gone and whatever feelings Isobel had for his wife were kept firmly at the back of her mind. She had never felt the need to have any children of her own; certainly hadn’t met a man she’d liked enough to change her mind. But her brother had two children when he left, and he would be coming home to only one. In that single moment, Isobel was glad she didn’t have children, and hoped she never did.
“I don’t think I thanked you for taking us in, Isobel.” A small voice floated up from beside her. Mary was looking at Eli, watching him as though she daren’t look away.
Mary stopped then, a little horrified at herself for her lapse in manners. She took Isobel’s hands in hers, held them there for a moment before the latter pulled them away.
“Thank you, Isobel. Truly. I hope you will come to think of me as a sister, for I find that is how I feel for you. Eli has enjoyed staying with you, I think. You have helped him where I could not.”
“You could have, had you not been so wrapped up in yourself these last few weeks.” The remark had come out sharper than Isobel had intended, and she could tell the words had stung. After a moment, Mary nodded.
“I deserved that. It has been hard to remember there are others in this world who are hurting.” She drew her coat up tighter, hugging herself. “It is easy to forget I am not alone.”
Eli chose at that moment to return to the women, complaining that one of the ducks had tried to bite him. Isobel looked at the boy and marvelled at the way he still seemed to be himself, even though Daisy, who had been his constant companion, was gone. He had lost more than a sister; he had lost a friend, a confident, and a partner in crime. He had lost his other half, and if a little boy could still find joy in chasing birds about a park in the middle of January, then anybody could find some optimism in themselves somewhere. Perhaps they simply needed to see that it was possible. Eli was her nephew, and she was an aunt, whether she wanted to be or not. Her family needed her to hold them together, at least for a little while. She hooker her arm through Mary’s, a small symbol of solidarity.
“You’re not, you know. Alone.”