The next morning we waved goodbye to Angie from the gate of our little cottage on
Barholt Lane. She wore her best Sunday dress, and a great big white hat. Her blond hair curled softly beneath the brim, and she looked like a china doll I had seen in one of the shop windows in the settlement. Though if you pressed me I’d never be able to tick off the names of all the frippery the girls delighted in, I prided myself on knowing a well-dressed woman when I saw one. And she was one. I was satisfied.Dill thumped me on the back. “Congratulations, old boy. This is the best idea you’ve had yet.”I knew that Angie was capable of very charming manners, so I had suggested we dress her up, and send her off to the Ladies’ Club where the OLAF met. I thought if she could listen to enough gossip, she might hear of any ladies that were single or widowed or looking to be married. Very posh, the club was, and she was the only one of us ‘proper’ enough to pass muster under their spectacled eyes, so we sent her on all our dirty-deeds. It was a good system, I thought.We waved goodbye to Angelica from the neutral ground of our front garden, and she grinned and stuck her tongue out before turning back to the road and curtseying to Major Warner just as he passed. As I’ve told you, she could have good manners if she had a mind to.The rest of us walked to down to the quiet, sandy, beach and tried to enjoy our first day of summer holidays, despite our eagerness to learn of Angie’s success.* * * *That afternoon Angie tore into the yard, waving a piece of paper. She paused to catch her breath and straighten her hat that sat askew on her curls. “I have a whole list of eligible ladies.” She pranced around like a peacock and I had a sudden twitching in my fingers that warned me I was about to pull one of her elegant tail-feathers by way of yanking a ribbon. Instead I snapped my fingers and cocked her hat to the other side of her head. She pushed my hand away and grabbed for the list Dill had snatched away. Rosemary and Fenny joined us in the yard, and we all sat along the fence listening to Dill.“But not all of these women can marry Papa.” Rosemary reminded us, as the list wound to an end.“Of course not goose. But I don’t think all of them would want to.” I took the list from Dill and studied it. “Angie, this is your handwriting. However did you get a chance to write the names down if you were sitting in the middle of the meeting?”She only grinned more broadly than ever—a maddening, Cheshire of a grin she used at the most aggravating moments. “I wasn’t.”I hated to show my confusion, but it was worse to sit there with my fate hanging in the balance. “If you didn’t sit in the meeting, then how did you find out about all these people?” I waved the piece of paper in her face.“I sat behind that group of potted palms. Ram Nokis knew I was there, and he slipped me three cookies. He really is a very nice waiter. Too bad we don’t have a mother that needs to get married. He is so nice and has a funny little parrot that rides around on his shoulder and squawks rude things at the ladies. Then Ram Nokis has to lock him up in the larder until he stops.”“But you still haven’t told us how you got the names.” I pressed.Angie shot me a withering glance full of barbs and arrows and glass-shards. “As I said before, I was sitting behind the palms, and I found an old receipt from someone’s bill, and you know what they bought? Three dozen tarts and a bottle of champagne. Think of all that rich food. Whoever ate all that must have felt sick.”I was about to pinch Angie to help her stay focused, but she saw me and continued with the story. “Anyway, I asked Ram Nokis for a pencil, and he gave it to me, and I listened to the OLAF and wrote every name down. Well, at least the ones that they said were unmarried or widowed or that sort of thing.”I re-read a few of the names scrawled on the paper, stumbling verbally over Angie’s dubious spelling. “Widow Tabythuh Micklurrin, Miss Sinthyuh Lowell, Miss Jone Preengul…. And Dill read you the rest. Eleven in all.” It’s not every girl who can combine the best penmanship with the most villainous spelling—I had often thought of bestowing some award upon her for her prowess in this area. I folded the paper and stuffed it in my waistcoat pocket alongside a bit of twine and a petrified tree-frog. “I propose that we go about this in a reasonable way. We’ll pick a name every day and visit that lady. If she isn’t the right one, then we’ll visit another the next day. That way we might find a mother before too long—we only have twelve weeks of summer holiday, you know.”“Capital logic Basil—I should have suggested just that sort of thing.” Dill agreed—he really was a good chap, always ready to take credit where credit wasn’t due him, and repeat the favor in your case.Angelica—ever practical—crossed her arms and eyed me sternly. “When do we start?”“Tomorrow—one doesn’t waste time when the future is on the line.”* * *That evening Papa was to come home from work early enough to spend an hour with us in the parlor. I worried that Fennel would speak about our plans in front of him. All little children (and girls most of all) seemed to be geniuses in saying the things that oughtn’t to be said at the moments it was worse to say them. Fennel was no exception. Really, all my siblings were gifted in this area. But tonight’s scenario was especially worrisome to me. Would Fennel remember our warning against telling Papa our plans? I hoped so.I took out my pocket knife and chose a stick of wood from the queerly carved rack near the fireplace. Then, sitting down on an ottoman, I turned it over in my hands. I had no inspiration for carving, but my mind was in a state requiring action to steady it.Papa entered the room and walked to the fireplace with his hands in his pockets. He faced us, and I looked at my father with eyes sharpened by worry and recent absence. If I was any sort of a people-watcher I might have sketched you a very pretty picture of his person—the way he stood erect and soldierly and as true to his convictions as a compass is to due North.He was handsome. No one could doubt that. There was one point in his favor. Papa’s wavy brown hair was rumpled, as if by a strong wind, and his blue eyes twinkled.“You all look comfortable,” he said.Rosemary put her knitting aside and stood from her chair. “Won’t you sit down, dear?”A smile brought the laughing, boyish look we loved so well into Papa’s face. “Yes, little mother. I will sit down, for I’m fagged. But not in that chair—she’s the easiest in the room and my Rosie must have the best of the best.” Papa always spoke of the furniture as a sailor speaks of ships. The easy-chair was a she and the dining-room table—especially when it had been especially cruel and banged us on the head with one of its sharp corners—was a He of the first order.“But you’ve been working and I haven’t—I read in the garden all day. There’s a dear, and let Sali get you a cup of tea,” Rosemary pleadedPapa gently pulled one of Rosemary’s curls and I smiled. Rosie was like a little mother, always fluttering about to take care of us all.My carving-knife ceased action and I stole furtive glances at my father, continuing with my mental appraisal. Papa’s character was impeccable, and he was a gentleman. That was another point in his favor. The score was racking up, and I smiled to myself. What woman would be able to resist the offer of marrying our father?I leaned against the wall and started again at the whittling of the wooden block. It began to take the shape of an elephant under my steady hand. I would give it to Fenny as a present.She sat in Angie’s lap, near Dill, and looked on as he chatted about the OLAF. So far there had been no tactless spilling-of-the-cats-in-the-bag. (Or however that old adage went.)“The old hens at the Lady’s club eat so much, it’s a wonder they aren’t all as fat as…as elephants.” Dill said.Fennel sat up a little straighter and her face assumed a wise expression that clutched my heart in frenzied hands and assured me some major slip of the tongue was imminent. “They sure do eat lots and lots. They et hundreds a’ tarts.”The cozy click of Rosemary’s knitting needles ceased. Dill’s face was like a thundercloud. We all froze, hoping against hope that Fennel would stop speaking.Angie was the only one who could gather her wits about her. “You’re right Fennel, the OLAF do eat a lot of tarts. You know, if you and I stacked up all the tarts they ate in a month, I bet it would reach all the way to the tippy-top of the church steeple. Or we could make a whole castle out of tarts for your dolls. Wouldn’t that be charming?” she asked, thereby diverting the conversation into safer waters. She grabbed Fennel by the pinafore and marched her behind the sofa I sat on, under pretence of drawing plans for a tart-castle. Brilliant girl. In my thoughts I marked down a note to slip Angie an extra cookie at tea-time for her cleverness. Such loyalty ought to be rewarded.Dill hurried to the heavy-cargoed shelves and brought a book of European engravings to the table beside Papa. He began questioning him about some of them as we generally did in these odd hours we had our father to ourselves. I tossed my carving in the woodbox—it didn’t resemble an elephant after all—and plopped onto the couch with a book I didn’t intend to read. I could hear the whispered conversation Angelica and Fennel held behind my sofa. I flipped to the title page of Little Dorrit and pretended to be absorbed by my reading.“Fennel Seasoning, don’t you dare say another word about the tarts. You’ll end up spoiling our secret.”“What secret?” Fennel asked eagerly.I tried not to smile, and turned a page in my book, not seeing the words.“The secret about finding a mother. Remember Basil told us not to speak of it?”“Ohhh…. I’m sorry Angie. Did I spoil it?” A note of panic crept into her voice.“No silly. Not yet, but you almost did. Just be quiet for pity’s sake, and only talk about the weather or the garden or something. Because if you tell—”“Will you take away my puddin’?”“Worse.”“Worse?”“We’ll hide your dolls for a week solid and sow your covers with tin-soldiers so they’ll prick you while you sleep. You can’t tell Papa. Weather or gardening—nothing else. Heart-solemn-promise?”“Heart…”“You’re sworn, Fennel—now shush.”I tried to stifle a laugh. Angie’s threats might reveal more than was seemly of our childish penalty-system, but it would be no good to tell Papa our plans for his looming marriage. He’d only remember Mama and be sorrowful and then what good would our scheme be?Angelica and Fennel returned to the group, and sat primly on their chairs like actresses at the start of a charade.“The weather was pretty today wasn’t it?” Fennel immediately began, with all her six year’s charm.“Yes it was, Fenny.” Papa took her upon his knee and stroked her blond curls.“No rain, or thunder, or lightnin’, or anything,” she continued.“No Fennel, you’re quite right. The weather is usually perfect this time of year.”“Yep. Just sun-shiny and pretty. I didn’t even need my stockings. And Rosie let me play in the garden with only my feet on.” Fennel said.“Is that so?”“Yes… but the flowers need rain. They’s gettin’ all droopy. The weather is so pwetty. Don’ you like this weather? I like this weather.”Angelica frowned and poked her hard in the ribs.“What? You tol’ me I should talk `bout the—”“Papa.” I interrupted just in time.“Yes?”I grabbed mentally for any topic that would divert the subject. “Wasn’t the roast extra good tonight?”Angie rolled her eyes at the weak attempt. Pitiful. Absolutely pitiful. A porridgy attempt, really. Papa smiled faintly. “Yes, it was very good. But Sali always cooks the meat to perfection.”We were silent for some time. The knowledge that we could not talk about the one all-consuming subject of finding a mother had put a damper on my ability to make conversation.At last, Papa roused himself with a sad smile. “I’m sorry to be so dull tonight. It is—was—your mother’s birthday…But she would want us to be cheerful. She never went in for all this rain-cloud folderol. Come tell me about your day.” He took Fennel upon his knee, and examined the grubby bouquet of flowers Angie offered with assumed cheerfulness. Rosemary leaned over the back of his chair and stroked his head while Dill chattered away about a huge fish that we had found washed up on the sand.“How was your day at camp?” I finally asked, for he was in charge of training new recruits for the British Army and it seemed a subject excessively far removed from any mention of mothers.As if glad for a topic he could expound upon, Papa smiled and charged bravely forward with a report of the entire goings on.Later on, after Papa had prayed with us and tucked each one of us in our own beds, I lay awake watching the shadows of the mango tree wave and flutter on the wall.I wondered if our plan would succeed, and if we ever would have a real mother again. It was late when at last I heard Papa go into his bedroom. Not long after I succumbed to my own weariness, the day’s distractions slipping away—cotton-like—on the soft wings of sleep.
Even If Your Hands Are Shaking | #OOTD
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