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It is a cheery sort of day. Warm sunshine in a cold house. The birds on my window-ledge squawk perfunctorily. My room is so still and so empty, it feels like my own little vacuum. Early in the morning May came in gushing, talking about flowers in spring or some such thing. You know I tuned myself out to her laboured cheerfulness years ago, but her words today did cause a response: they made me look out of my window. The flower-patch you had begun to plant as though you meant for it to flourish one day has not yet withered. It will in some days. It is a working Sunday for John; several students with half a brain shared among them have gathered for remedial classes. Although I have shut my door, as always his loud gruff voice rings oppressively in my ears.
Thank you for this cold dankness, this darkness. Thank you for leaving me all alone in this world.
Jamie folded the letter up and put it delicately away in the pocket of an old, worn jacket that would always remain his favourite, as Jenny had bought it for him from her summer job wages on his fourteenth birthday. A leaden weariness and gloom weighed him down. Part of this was due to a vague sense of intimidation at the challenges his first day of college had just given him a glimpse of, of being expected to transfigure overnight from a gauche, desultory high-school student to a responsible and masterful young man ready for a life and a career. This was an insecurity he shared with nearly every other student lying sleepless in his dorm, but he also had other burdens. Such as a piece of paper now safely in his jacket, a sheet that weighed a ton.
One look at Jamie showed that he was not constituted for unhappiness, and indeed he had at no phase in his life been exactly morose. A slight frame, light curls, clear hazel eyes, and an easy smile suggested the sort of sunny, happy-go-lucky, not particularly ambitious temperament that gets through life lightly and peacefully, keeping scrapes and falls to an amiable minimum. Yet, there were hints of worry-lines around his eyes, hidden among the crinkles of his smiles, and a slight slump in his shoulders, which suggested that things had been difficult for him. Things had been rather unfair, although they had been so for so long that he had never known it. All he knew was that it was hard, hard to have to make choices that for all these years had been an inextricable part of almost every waking moment. Choices like the one he had made this morning.
Jamie spent nearly all his free time on his first day tracking down the baseball coach, wishing to apply to the college team at the earliest. He was required to fill out a form. Eagerly, he scribbled his details on the sheet. Then got to the box for his signature, and stopped a long while.
He stared at the first line of the form. James Hudson. That was his name. But on nearly every document in his life, he had always signed J. Georges. For his name was that.
He was in second grade again. Everyone in this new school called him Jamie Hudson, but he didn’t have to think a moment before he scribbled James Georges on his test answer sheet. He knew Jenny wrote that on hers, and they called her Hudson too now. Jenny explained to him that the other people felt they should change their names when they had new parents, but she herself was firmly opposed to that view. After all, Georges was what they’d been called at The Bower since as long as they could remember, and even when the Fords had been their parents.
Jamie didn’t remember the Fords, much: he’d been just four when they returned them to The Bower. But Jenny did, and she told him matter-of-factly that Mrs. Ford was fat and old and was always trying to fit herself in horrible tight dresses from when she was young, while Mr. Ford was skinny and old and smoked cigarettes, which was a decidedly most terrible thing, and Jamie must never do it.
But she didn’t tell him that she’d gotten to like those parents very much indeed. Mr. Ford had been very kindly and got her loony-toons earbobs almost every week, and Mrs. Ford had doted on them and baked the loveliest strawberry shortcakes. But one day when she’d walked up to their room, she’d heard them talking, with Mr. Ford saying he was ‘retired, and too broke to permanently adopt and support the kids’ and Mrs. Ford weeping but doing little to protest. And two weeks later, they were back at their unfamiliar old rooms in The Bower. There they had stayed, until three years after, when an excited May had walked in with a reluctant, trudging John, taken one look at Jenny, whispered to her husband, “Oh, the lovely, large-eyed little creature!” and taken her up in her arms. Jenny hadn’t returned the hug. Not then, not ever. She’d merely shrugged when Miss Wendy at The Bower tried to explain to her that while the Fords had been foster parents, hence temporary, with May and John it was meant to be a lasting relationship.
It had been eleven years since then.
“Done with that, son?” said the coach, looking up impatiently. Jamie’s hands shook as he scribbled a nearly unintelligible J. Hudson and sent the sheet ahead on its journey.
I will never go out with Brent Watson. He is a profligate and a squanderer. He is uncouth and irresponsible. So darned cheerful that I know it has to be false, yet I see so clearly it isn’t, and it makes me strangely jealous of him, this joviality I cannot share in. Yes, he has been the best friend I’ve had for a long time, but it’s time he got over his fancies and stopped dropping hints. I can never be in love with him. And I don’t think he’s exactly in love with me either, just sort of taken at the moment.
May is getting on to my nerves. I know she’s set her heart upon my marrying him. She wants to be rid of me. Now that you’ve gone- and she does adore you, of course- I bet she can hardly bear the sight of me, so unlike you, so melancholy and always brusque to her. So she’s started putting on a burlesque sort of worried expression and saying things to me like, “I hope you’re very sure of what you want, dearie,” whenever the subject of him crops up at a generally silent dinner table. Sometimes she tries a hand at reverse psychology. “Don’t you feel he’s a rather- um- er- um- imprudent young man, darling?” Poor dim-witted May. Can’t even carry that off without making it painfully obvious. And John on such occasion coughs and says something incoherent and hoarse into his moustache, showing he’s supposed to be part of the act. But I suppose a man so utterly devoid of any kind of emotion as John is just hopeless even at feigning concern.
You are taking care of yourself, aren’t you?
Jamie was not feeling his best. When he had chosen this college miles away from home citing the availability of better opportunities and a more challenging environment, he had paid scant attention to his own words. He had not actually considered that the opportunities would come with exactions, or that the environment would provide challenges greater than his imagination could foresee and his experience prepared him for. He had never hoped or planned to emerge as a leading light of his institution, but had expected certainly to be among those invariably approved of and expected to make a fine life. It hadn’t turned out that way. Nothing here was simple, there were around him too many of the brilliant and of the persevering, and quite a few who were both, and he was more inadequate than he had realised. He began to fear he would never find his feet in this crowd.
The thought of home was so tantalising, Jamie dreamed of that haven like a wistful child, unable and unwilling to tear his eyes away from it and towards the future. The suburbs were so beautiful in their neat predictability, college would be so simple, employment would be easy to obtain, if not likely remarkable. May would coddle him, pet him, fondly tick him off; Jenny would do the same even more enthusiastically, determined not to be outdone, determined to outdo. And he still had a place at that little college…
Jenny. Jamie was worried about his sister. The letter reinforced his premonition of impending doom. He knew Jenny better than anyone, and it took him a single reading of her first few lines to gather with finality what had evidently dawned on May and John too, judging from her description of their words and gestures. Jenny was in love with that wastrel Watson. She was set on a definite course to having her heart broken.
For of all the lines she had written, the ones she had meant least sincerely were most true: Watson was a profligate. He was uncouth and irresponsible. He was certainly not love with her, any more than he was in love with anyone other than himself. Nearly everyone- everyone barring Jenny—knew that the tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, brainless Watson joked he could have any girl head-over heels, even Old Miss Prissy. Jamie had never told her, because he it would have hurt her no end to see her “best friend” for what he really was, and Jenny had been hurt enough in her life. He had expected her to be, in her own words, ‘sensible’, but he had obviously been mistaken.
When her heart did break, May could be no help to her, John even less. The former would try tirelessly to console her, but her purest intentions would only be misinterpreted and serve as further sources of grief. The latter was so undemonstrative that he knew Jenny hardly considered him human. No, only one person could help her, and that person was by his own choice an inmate in a cluttered prison where his high hopes were spiralling into oblivion by the day. Why had he ever come here?
Did Jenny blame herself? Did she think it was to get away from her, from the daily conflicts he was forced into, that he had left in the first place? The endless war between his loyalty to a sister who was his oldest and dearest treasure and his affection for parents whose many sacrifices he could not ignore the way she chose to? Was that thought killing her even this moment? But was it true? Was that the real reason he had chosen to leave? No it wasn’t. Certainly it was not. There was one way he could prove it to her.
Jenny was about to be devastated. His mid-terms were about a month away, and he would never get through. College, and life, looked impossible. His sister needed him.
Jenny walked home in a daze. It was a stormy evening, and the wind howled and screeched in her ears and tore at her flaming hair; lightening flashed in her wet eyes. But she heard only the mirth of cruel inward laughter, felt only the burden of oppressive sympathy, the helplessness and agitation of being made out a fool.
She turned the doorknob softly, but May heard her from the kitchen and instantly began trilling away. “Why, Jenny’s back home, and for dinner we have”-
She stopped short. She had reached the kitchen doorway and seen Jenny’s face. Jenny returned her apprehensive gaze with as unfriendly a stare as she had ever fixed upon her adopted mother. May would never know. May already knew.
The disappointment of having been turned away a hundred times was nothing to stop resilient May from reaching out once more and heading tearfully across the hall towards a statuesque Jenny.
“Oh, dear, he is a horrible boy, and it’s good we’ll have nothing more to do with him”- she walked over and hugged her, sobbing.
This was what Jenny had been afraid of. Now she had no one.
No one to hide behind. No Jamie, the security of whose invaluable happiness had always been a reason for her to be on her guard against the ever-imminent betrayal of their ‘parents’. She had worried and muddled that kid enough to drive him away from home. No Brent Watson, an apparent infatuation with whom had let her be a rebellious child who could find only fault with her parents’ views and actions. For a while this too had worked, until she had carried the act too far tonight and turned herself into a laughing stock. And pulled the curtains down and cleared the stage.
She had no excuse now to refuse to see May, who so comfortingly embraced her, thinking she had suffered a very different sort of heartbreak from the real one, and John, who watched them miserably from the doorway, for what they really were. No way to pretend they were like her old foster parents the Fords who had turned her and Jamie out all those years ago.
Mostly as sensitive to kindness as she was to injustice, Jenny had all this time ignored what she saw of it in the people closest to her. Now she could not help but see a petite, loving, self-effacing woman and an awkward but committed and quietly generous man. May, who had given the better part of her life and love to the torn socks, tousled hair and wounded spirits of two children, receiving nothing, not even affection or regard (except from one of them), in return. John, who besides providing for them went out of his way to do little things he tried to make sure were not noticed, who gave free lessons to the rag-clothed son of his impecunious neighbour and refused to let him say a word about it. Good, imperfect people who did the very best they could, and she could not deny how selfishly she had wronged them to protect herself from injury.
How could she not return her that May’s embrace now? How could she not cry with her and murmur unintelligible apologies for all her accumulated follies to her and to John standing in the doorway?
“But it’ll be all right very soon, sweetie,” May said, “I had a letter from Jamie today. He says he’s winding things up back there. He’ll be back for good in less than three weeks. So it’ll be fine, you see?”
Jenny turned rigid in her arms. Broke off. Wiped her tears. Hurried upstairs without another word.
The daisies that Jamie had planted on the one barren flower patch in the garden had looked for some time as though their tenure in the world was meant to be rather brief, but now they refused to wilt. They were feeble and spineless plants, and the flowers were tiny and puckered, but miraculously they were alive. Jenny spent long hours staring at them through her window.
Then one early morning she caught them at it. Perhaps it was the angle from which she saw them, or the light of the rising sun sharp against their faces, but they looked older to her than they’d ever looked before. The man patted the soil in which he’d planted some fresh seeds, the woman bent over the old blossoms with a watering can. They’d been at it for weeks, tending so gently, so patiently to those plants that frailly held on to life, delicate and weak like stars obscured by the winter fog, like children who had shut themselves out from the world.
You idiot James Hudson,
You have some serious explaining to do. What in the world you intend by all this, I’d very much like to know. To begin with, you abandon me here saying you look forward to challenging circumstances and mountainous difficulties and that sort of thing. I steel myself, see the greater good of my hero and let him go. Then when the going gets tough, my wondrous Hercules cowers down and decides to pack his bags and take the first flight home. I won’t have it, I tell you.
Look, Jamie, whatever took you there, you’re in the right place now. Make the most of it and stop trying to run away. Whatever they’re throwing at you back there, hurl it back. And no nonsense about worrying for me in your next letter- I won’t let you use that as an excuse. I’m happy as can be, and May and John are here for me.
I hope that gives you a hint, Jamie, about how making amends is hard but can be done. Whatever mistakes you’ve made, put them right- and the sooner the better.
I want no rubbish from you hereon. I want to hear you’ve been a good boy.
Love, kisses and several grievances,