Theresa had always been an early riser, snatching those seconds before anyone else woke up to spend alone. It had only ever been in the dawn that she had been free to slouch or wear her hair as she pleased. To breathe out.
Carolyn had said, both begrudgingly and commandingly, that she and Martin were to stay in the spare room of the Knapp-Shipwright household. Theresa had half expected the household to be full of people who got up early, what with them all being aviators. But Martin was making up for a lifetime of poor sleep still, and the amount of sleep Arthur needed was a mystery.
This was her favourite time of year, when the sun still rose early but the idea of a chill in the air was being remembered by the trees. The trees basked in the warm light for as long as they could, knowing the turn of the season was near, dark and cold nights ready to stretch over the world and make people walk faster, desperate to get to somewhere else.
So Theresa rose early, smiled at Martin fast asleep, mouth wide open and pressed close to his sides. She snuck out of bed, avoiding the creaky floorboard and drifted down the stairs. Carolyn’s coffee machine was whirring away happily – she had it set to make a full pot by six am every day so she never had to face a morning without coffee. Theresa boiled the kettle, supposing that it couldn’t be louder than the coffee machine, therefore wouldn’t be a disturbance. She had bought some blend of tea for the mornings, herbal and flowery, just to see the face Carolyn made. It hadn’t disappointed.
She was up before the sun, just the way she liked it. There was a lovely big conservatory on this house, with well-worn settees and a chest that held old action figures and lego, wooden blocks and faceless dolls that looked as if they could never have been new.
From the armchair, the sun seemed to bloom over the hedge and roll its way up the big tree at the bottom of the garden, staining the lawn red, orange, gold. Already, it had lightened the sky, turned it purple as if the whole sky was holding its breath, waiting for the sun to break through.
“I think that’s my seat.”
Theresa jumped, glad she’d put her mug down. She turned to see Carolyn stood, coffee in hand, somehow smiling sternly and warmly at the same time. As she moved to get up, Carolyn scoffed and shook her heat, sitting in the rocking chair opposite. “I jest. I couldn’t care less, but this certainly is Herc’s chair, so…”
Several moments of silence passed. The very tip of the red sun poked out over the horizon, bleeding warmth through the glass.
“Why are you up so early?” Theresa reached for her mug and turned to Carolyn.
“Could ask you the same. Herc snores, and I’ve been a stewardess for almost forty years. I physically cannot sleep for more than six hours, even on a day off.”
Carolyn’s lips thinned. She took a swig of coffee before answering. “Mm, near enough. I ran my father’s sweetshop after he died until I was almost thirty, then trained after my first divorce.”
Theresa raised a curious eyebrow. It was rare to catch Carolyn in such a contemplative mood. She wanted to ask all sorts of questions, find out about Gordon and Ruth, and further back, talk about her first husband, Arthur as a child, how one even went about organising a sweet shop. But she didn’t dare.
More silence passed as the light shifted red to orange, the sun a full circle now. Carolyn sighed, eventually. “I know you must be thinking ‘what a lot of dead ends’. And you’re right. I’m getting to old to wake up at five-thirty in the morning.”
“I wasn’t, actually.”
“Hm?” Carolyn blinked, looking confused as though she had just been interrupted in a daydream.
“Dead ends. What I was thinking was that you’ve lived. Why don’t you ever tell any stories?”
Carolyn blinked again, her mouth twisting into a wry smile. “There’s nothing to tell, honestly. I’m a twice-divorced stewardess who runs a mediocre airline and I’m pushing seventy. That’s the open book.”
“Will Arthur keep running OJS?”
“After me?” Carolyn raised her eyebrows. Theresa nodded. “He can do what he wants with it without me, as far as I’m concerned. I should think he will, mostly for lack of other ideas. Bless that boy – he might have the common sense of a fruit fly but he’s sharper than people give him credit. I’d trust him with our aeroplane.”
“I think he’d do well with it. He cares. It’s a skill many people seem to lack.”
“How did you come out of a royal family?”
“Because I learned at an early age that my family didn’t care what I did as long as I looked obedient, then after Maxi they cared even less, and I learned that kindness is the same as a disguise when everyone has an image of what you should be like as a princess.”
“Rebellious, then. So was I, once. You really want a story?”
Theresa nodded again, smiling. She knew that Carolyn knew that she was playing her, but she had met enough people who twisted words into whatever they wanted to know how to use them to her own advantage. And she was interested. Carolyn was the closest to a real mother figure she’d ever had.
“I was nineteen when I married Ian, my first husband. Lancaster born and bred, he was. And kind. My father died the year after, and we moved into the sweet shop that had been left to us. He was a carpenter, Ian. He helped me fix it up, and we ran it. Then my sister decided she didn’t like what we’d done with it, slandered us to the point of bankruptcy and ran off with my husband. It was after that, I thought it might be a good idea to move away.”
Theresa gripped her mug, looking between Carolyn and the garden. The sun was bright gold, silhouetted by the tree, casting long shadows over the grass. She smiled sadly at Carolyn, breathing in to speak but Carolyn shook her head, stopping her.
“I don’t need your condolences, not any more. It’s past. Just like Gordon, who I met several years later at Air England, and you know how that story ends.” Carolyn paused, frowning into her coffee. Theresa said nothing, but smiled internally. If you weren’t paying attention, you might think that Carolyn and Arthur were as different as could be. But Theresa was paying attention, and they had so many similar mannerisms that she could almost imagine a young Arthur looking up at his mother, unconsciously copying her frowns and folded arms.
“Look, don’t ever even think this around him, because I’d never hear the end of it and I’d have to skin you alive, but I’m happy now, with Herc. It’s nice to bicker and know it doesn’t mean anything, not to have to tiptoe around words in case he takes it the wrong way. It’s a relief. I imagine you feel the same with Martin.”
“I do. That poor boy is not suited to royal functions at all.”
Carolyn’s eyes flashed with a wicked smile as she imagined Martin meeting royalty. Their wedding had been hilarious enough. “I am surprised your mother let you marry him at all.”
“I’m surprised my mother didn’t have you sent to the dungeon! I thought she was about to slap you at one point.”
“In fairness to her, I was goading her into it. I thought she was very dignified considering.”
They shared a smile, the memory of it clear. Certainly, it had been a wedding unlike any other royal wedding, ever.
“I’m glad you were all there. You all make everything so much more bearable. You’re the family I wish I’d had.”
“The one you do have, silly girl. There’s always a place for you here, you and Martin. Don’t ever forget that.”
Yet again, Carolyn’s tone didn’t match her face, her words barbed to mask the kindness beneath. That was her way, Theresa supposed. Her way of showing she cared while maintaining her cold-hearted act. And it meant everything to Theresa. These were people who would be kind to her, but better – they joked with her, teased her, looked out for her. More a family than hers ever had been.
And the sun shone warm through the window.