So, after it all, when they're back for the second time and reeling on the train platform, Susan decides she's done with it. She sees Lucy and Edmund and their excitement, their cheer, their need to be back and their knowledge that they will be, but she sees Peter too, the sheen on his eyes that he won't let fall because he's too old and too mature and too knowing already. Peter knows what it is to be let down, and so does Susan.
In school that term they try to make her go to chapel on Sundays with all the other girls, marching in forms from first to sixth. Lucy is way down in first form, Susan way up in fifth; they make eye contact across the pews and the schoolhouse minister delivers a boring sermon about respecting your elders and betters. Susan keeps her eyes open during the prayers.
It feels somehow more rebellious to stop believing when you know for a fact that he's real. She's read essays in the Sunday Times her father leaves on the breakfast table during summertime, opinion pieces by scientists and intellectuals who loftily preach their disbelief in a higher power. But how much better is it - how much more weight does it hold - to know for a fact in his existence, and to disbelieve anyway?
She keeps her eyes open during the prayers.
The years churn on, as they have once before. Her hair grows long, but she cuts it short; in Narnia, during her High Queen years, she had it so long it was unwieldy, and she had two handmaidens who worked on her every morning for half an hour, plaiting and braiding it so it was manageable. It brushed beyond her waist at the longest, to the tops of her thighs, and the men she slept with had a fascination with the way it fell over her body, like water over the smooth crooks of a cliff. When she had been briefly a prisoner of the Calormen people, during one of their forgettable, repetitive clashes, they had cut all her hair off in a strange attempt to - to what? Hurt her? All it had done was help her, in the following escape attempt, during which she stole a horse and killed three men. But now she starts off with a bob. It feels sacrilegious to even think about growing her hair as long as she wore it during her time in Cair Paravel.
She gets a job as a secretary for a bank in the city, a boring, menial task where her duties are really mainly letting men smile at her and listening to the woes of the other women who work with her. Husbands and men they're stepping out with - a few self-consciously use the term boyfriend, and then giggle. A few have young children. Most have overbearing mothers, or mothers in law. They all tell Susan they envy her independence, but she sees how much they pity her.
She meets with Peter in Cambridge for afternoon tea in the university, in the office he uses part-time while he completes his doctorate. She meets with Lucy in Brighton, where she's finishing a placement in a small, private medical home, full of frail old women who worship the ground her sister walks on.
More often she meets Edmund for drinks in the city. They've all grown, of course, but he more than the other two has seen and followed her line of thought. Over cocktails and whisky-and-ices they discuss systems of belief and war and manipulation of children and fairytales. Susan did a degree in History of Art, Edmund in Psychology, and while now she slaves away at the typewriter he works in a shady building for a company they all suspect, but can never confirm, is related to the government somehow. He is often away for long periods of time on the Continent, and sometimes comes back with odd injuries he can't comfortably explain away.
She finds a man at the same time he does. Hers is called James and is as boring as the name suggests, unimaginative and stolid, a banker for the establishment Susan used to work at before she transferred to a secretary pool with twenty women working on commission for businesses. For all James's faults, he is dependable, and handsome, and secure, and he has a briefcase and the sex is boring but predictable, and at night they talk about his job (a lot) and her job (in passing). He is nothing like her, and nothing like the lovers she took in Narnia, the Calormen man she had a torrid decade-long affair with.
Edmund's man is an Irish labourer called Oísin, who is tall and lean and viciously cheeky. When Susan meets him, which is never very often and always spontaneously, he smells of cigarettes and outdoor sweat, and he smiles and he makes Edmund laugh. He belongs to the world of Edmund which Susan is no part of, the shadowy, unclear world of men and winks and signals in the dirt, of the building he works in, of the bruises he brings back with him from Europe.
Susan ditches James two years after they meet, more from boredom than anything else. Oísin fades out of Edmund's life quite naturally, the way the sun fades from the sky earlier and earlier until the sunset is early afternoon in November. They don't discuss Oísin, but they discuss James in great detail. Edmund is more invested than Susan.
"We're fucked, Su," he says lightly, during one of these conversations. "We can't have any relationship. We're like - sixty, really. We've lived sixty years of life and we look like young twentysomethings."
"I know," she says. It bothers neither of them very much. None of them. All of them have followed paths unorthodox, and have committed themselves to the lives they now lead. "But, hey. At least we aren't boring."
Edmund laughs, and drinks, and she watches his throat bob around the hot liquid and thinks about what a waste it is for all of them. Edmund's love affair was long and monogamous, with a Narnian man called Bastian who was older, with long, dark hair and a warm, comforting smile. He had quietly mourned him during the second return, when they went to the ruins of Cair Paravel and saw an old portrait mossed-over. Bastian and Edmund together and regal, in front of the pear orchard they planted in the South of the country. For a while Susan thought maybe Aslan would let him stay, the third time, because Lucy confided in her the touches and the sighs Caspain and Edmund had shared on the boat.
But Aslan is not that kind.
Lucy and Peter join the city pair for a holiday in Wales, in a cottage rented for a fortnight from a man Peter knows in the Ancient History department. It's the height of summer, sticky and warm in July, and their parents have gone on a return visit to America, offering to take Susan but not really surprised or offended when she had declined. They drive up in Lucy's little buggy Cooper, Peter in a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Edmund with his suit jacket over his knees and his braces tight, Susan with shaded glasses on and her hair loose so the wind can reach the shell of her ears.
"Feels like old times," Peter says with false lightness when Lucy stops the car. "And too damned hot by far."
The cottage is tucked amongst the trees - all of them have long since agreed the nature of things is more calming than anything else - and shaded, a little veranda visible around the back, the windows cobwebby and glistening the way only old glass really can. It's too modern for Susan to pretend it's anything but Wales, but if she closes her eyes, breathes for a second, listens, she can fool herself -
"Su," Edmund says softly. Hand on her shoulder. "Come on, yeah?"
So it goes. For two weeks the world is theirs. Susan goes home with a man in the local village pub one night, and they have sex under the stars and then she goes back to the cottage, soil in her under clothes and twigs in her hair. Edmund winks; Lucy is away with a woman she met in the same pub; Peter is out on a walk thinking about wars a million years ago. So it goes.
Back to the city. Lucy comes with this time, and her and Susan spend a pleasant few days hunting for small apartments, so they can split the rent. Edmund gets a man and sheds him quickly - he's called Henry and he looks just like the others. This time Lucy is around to witness the problem, and late at night over a bottle of wine she and Susan discuss it, but what is there to do? So Edmund is in love with Bastian - Caspian - Oísin - Henry - so? He made his choice a world away and ten thousand years ago, and nobody can stop him.
"I'm lonely, Su," Lucy confesses, her cheeks pink with the cheap Swiss booze. She leans back, studying her blunt, unpainted nails, the scar across her index finger from a scalpel incident in nursing school. "I'm terribly - terribly - awfully lonely."
So am I.
"So am I," Susan says and it feels like defeat. No matter who she takes to bed, no matter who she shares a smile with in a crowded place, no matter no matter; they all think she's mental. Controlling, up herself, or maybe if they get deeper they think she's fucked in the head telling fairy-stories about her and her siblings she should have dropped a decade ago.
So am I.
Peter earns his doctorate and the three London-dwellers take the train to Cambridge to see him accept it, red and shiny in the ceremony where his advisor dabs a hanky at his eyes and the Vice-Chancellor announces that they are privileged to see Dr Pevensie stay at the college for a few more years, teaching an undergraduate course in the interpretation of Herodotus. He will, say his teachers, be a gift to the institution. Flowers are paraded on the stage and Peter, redder and shinier and fumbling with his new prescription glasses, steps up to the lectern with a sheaf of papers. He delivers -
In Narnia they used to gather in their thousands to hear the High King Peter speak. Cair Paravel had a balcony with curved walls which projected his voice out onto the courtyard but even so there seemed to be some magic behind it, the way he could turn from talking normally to Susan or Edmund or Lucy or Tumnus or any number of friends and advisors, and then turn to address his people and boom with the confidence of a young god. My people, he would say, and they would each think he spoke to them alone and they would each be right, my people -
He delivers a stirring thank-you. To Professor Tirney, sitting behind him now openly weeping into his wet hanky, to the Dean, to their parents, and:
"To my wonderful siblings," he says, smiling down at them like the King he always will be. "Susan, Edmund, Lucy. We've been through the wars, more than you all think, and none of you have ever let me down. I'm beyond honoured to know you, nevermind to be your brother, and every day that goes by I thank my lucky stars you're all still in my life. Despite being your older brother, I think I learn more from the three of you every day than you could ever have learned from me, and yet you still stick around, no matter what I do. I love you. I couldn't have done this without you. Thank you, all." He sits down.
The spell breaks.
Afterwards they indulge in a time-honoured Pevensie tradition, and go out to get roaringly, ridiculously, embarrassingly drunk. Cambridge is still a university town, and so establishments to do things like this are in abundance. Their parents drive back to Dorset that night, with awkward kisses and promises to come for Sunday lunch, and then it's just the Pevensies and the primeval world, the way the universe began, a short sharp shower of light followed quickly by a coronation. Peter drags them to his favourite dive and it goes south from there.
The night passes in flickers of scenes. Lucy giggling - Edmund licking some sort of substance from the back of a tall, dark-haired man's hand - Peter drunkenly explaining who Hermes is to a pretty, flirty undergraduate, firmly ignoring her advances - Susan pressed against the bar, an anonymous hand up her shirt, her hand on the anonymous package - Lucy pulling her away for a dance - a man pulling Lucy away for a dance - Edmund taking her place - Peter shouting i love ancient persia! and getting a cheer from the drunks in the corner in response -
And so on. Susan's head hurts terribly when she wakes up on Peter's old, fifty-owners-from-new sofa, but she wouldn't change a thing.
She misses -
She doesn't let the thought finish brewing. She never has and she never will.
"Who wants coffee?" She yells into the hungover flat, and from the other end of the corridor she hears Peter being violently ill into his toilet.
Back at school. Susan is sixteen, Lucy is eleven. There's a tree on the grounds a lot older than the rest, branches sagging with age like an old woman holding too many shopping bags, and if you have the knack you can leap into the lowest branch and sit there quite comfortably for hours. Susan meets Lucy there one May afternoon, their legs bare so their thighs itch with the horrible material their school skirts are made of, their socks starched and white, their plain brown shoes muddy with the grass. "Susie," Lucy says, a childish nickname she only reverts to when she's terribly sad, "Do you think we ought to have stayed?"
This is only five months after the second time. (Before Lucy will go on her voyage.) "Stayed," Susan repeats, and lets herself believe the treacherous promise. "No, we shouldn't. We wouldn't have been let."
"The first time, I mean," Lucy presses. Eleven and scrawny, she's all knees and eyes and elbows and she doesn't look much like a High Queen. "We should have seen the door and not left. We should have gone back home."
(Home will always be Cair Paravel.)
"Maybe we should," Susan feels nettled by thinking about it, "But he would have made us go back some other way."
Lucy doesn't look up from her scabbed knees. "I miss it."
Susan swallows the lump in her throat. "Me too."
The years roll on as years are wont to do, and in school Susan keeps her head down and her marks up and she and Lucy sit together once a week, writing a letter to their male counterparts in the boys school an hours’ coach trip away. Once a week they get the letter back, addressed in Edmund’s neat, feminine handwriting, Dear Luce and Su, and some boring updates and some careful unframing of Narnia, never mentioning it directly. None of them talk about it for almost five years after the third time, and even then they make reference veiled and uncomfortable, as though Aslan will strike them down for daring to miss it. Dear Ed and Peter, Susan writes, because Lucy has always been wont to dictate, and her hand cramps and she doesn’t stop writing just in case the spell breaks.
She takes History but doesn’t enjoy it very much, because she can’t help but think that isn’t how it went. Still she’s good at it on technicality. She takes Literature, and enjoys the Dickinson and the Blake, and doesn’t much care for the Coleridge. She takes Art because she was always quite good at forms and sketches, and finds to her mild surprise that she’s quite talented, really. When she’s eighteen she applies to St Andrews for History of Art and is surprised, but not as much as everyone else, to be accepted. She does three years there, writes an essay on Renoir that gets published in the school newspaper, but otherwise it’s heads down and marks up, down and up down and up.
In Narnia there had been a fresco decorating the length of the Great Hall at Cair Paravel. It had taken three years to complete, with regular sittings from all the siblings, and three teams of dwarves working in shifts around-the-clock to get it complete. For three years their Great Hall had smelt of fresh paint and varnish and it had been mildly embarrassing to accept guests there, but after the fresco had been finished - oh, the glory! Look at it now. See the beauty. Aslan is at the centre, a lion as beautiful as the sun in the sky, his eyes green as the forests and his claws as sharp as a hurtful word, and around him are the High Kings and Queens of Narnia, the ones who can do no wrong in the eyes of their beholders.
Peter the Magnificent is blonde and blue-eyed and strong, determined in his power. Rhindon (the sword that slayed the wolf) is held in one right hand, his lion-crest shield held at his chest. His cloak is red. His crown is golden set with rubies.
Susan the Gentle is dark-haired and pale-cheeked and steely. Her horn, which will summon aid no matter where or how or when it's blown, is slung on a leather thong around her shoulder, and her bow is held in her left hand. Her crown is silver set with sapphires. Her cloak is blue.
Edmund the Just is light and slender and shaded. He has a hand on one hip, dressed formally in light armour, a small, deadly rapier in his other hand. His stance emphasises his lack of gift; his chin is raised as though challenging you to judge. His cloak is green. His crown is silver set with emeralds.
Lucy the Valiant is small and fierce and black-haired. Her dress is simple, her armour light, and her wide sleeves embroidered with sigils of care and protection. Her smile, wide and beautiful and carefree, sits perfectly with the vial of golden liquid she holds in her slender hands. Her crown is gold set with topaz. Her cloak is yellow.
And so she thinks of the fresco, of the way it took them and made them more , and she writes a stunning essay on Michaelangelo and graduates and becomes a secretary and London and Edmund and all the rest.
"Su," Edmund says, chin resting in his palm as she ices a bruise, "Why don't you ever ask what I do?"
This is three years after he graduated, five after she did. He's just come back from Europe somewhere, and he looks haunted, thinner than usual, verging on the gaunt. She thinks he wouldn't let anyone else see him like this (not even Oísin, at this point a new flame.)
"I know what you do and I don't need you to tell me," she says. Brisk. "And you don't want to have to say. I'm not stupid, Ed, just discreet - we should get Lucy to look at this, by the way. I've done my best but there might be discolouration."
"As though I care," Edmund says roughly, rubbing a hand over the unmarked side of his face. "Thank you."
He leaves shortly afterwards. When Susan next visits his flat, the man there is not Oísin.
(Tall, dark-haired, quiet, with a whiplash tongue.)
And all of them are like this, every single one of them, because no matter what and no matter when, they've done too much and seen too much and been too much to be normal anymore. Who can they fall in love with? Who can they form a friendship with outside the four of them?
The old Professor, Susan knows, talks to Peter. So does an old woman Peter calls "dear Pols". Eustace Scrubb, cousin and annoyance supreme, has gone off to university in Scotland, but occasionally writes to Edmund talking excitedly about the research he’s doing into Anglo-Saxon writing, with veiled references to Narnia hidden between the lines. Someone called Jill is apparently in contact with Lucy, who met her through Eustace, and they seem to get together for boozy cocktails in Manchester every few months to set the world to rights.
Nobody talks to Susan. She remembers walking up the gorge, along the Rush, and how long Aslan had looked at her, how angry he had been at her disbelief. Nobody talks to Susan and of course she doesn’t mind, because she’s always assumed she would be by herself, but at the end it seems odd.
“Su,” Peter says, his voice crackly over the phone, “I wish you would leave the city for a bit. Come stay with me. I’m on research leave - I’m going to Scotland. A little cottage just outside Dundee, it’s terribly beautiful - oh, come on, do. Ed’s off doing god knows what and Lucy’s in Belfast and what with one thing and another we’re all at a loose end.”
And he’s right. Susan has nothing going on.
So she books two weeks off work, says nothing to her supervisor when she glowers over her glasses, and packs her small case. She catches a train from Paddington and sits with her gloves in her hands, looking out at the rattling countryside.
Aslan used to be.
The first time, when there was just the snow and the two Beavers, she hung onto the hope of Aslan like it was a fire keeping her warm. And Aslan, when they found him knotted to that stone, when they found him in that tent, when they found him, was cruel and cold and judgemental. Why didn’t you pick up on my metaphors, he says with his amber eyes, Why weren’t you good enough the first time around?
Edmund. Between the first and the second time.
The summer before Caspian’s Narnia, the summer before they were whisked away from the train station, Edmund and Susan took a walk on the beach where they were having their hols. Here they are, tracking bare feet through the damp sand, their shoes held in their hands by the knots in their laces. The sea smells of salt and coldness, because despite the summer heat they’re still in England, and the ocean is only the Irish Sea.
“I’m not a very good person,” Edmund says, looking up at the clouds.
(He’s thirteen at this point.)
“You’re thirteen,” Susan says sensibly. Sensible Susan with her sensible shoes.
Edmund does that snotty breath that young boys are often wont to do when they think they might cry, breathing a whole cloud of stuff in through his nose. “Father Christmas didn’t give me a gift,” he says, all wet and damp. “You got two. Luce got - you know. Peter got Rhindon. I got to be Edmund the Betrayer.”
“You were eleven,” Susan says. Sensibly.
Her brother looks to the sky and she can see how shiny his eyes are. His cheeks have freckled in the summer. “I’m not anymore and I don’t feel any different to how I did then. What if I’m not any better? What if we go back and I do the same thing again?”
But privately, Susan thinks there isn’t much wrong with being cold and trusting a woman who says she will warm you up, who offers you treats to eat and drink and makes sure your fingers won’t freeze of frostbite. Susan thinks there isn’t much wrong with being eleven and upset that you’ve been sent away from your home, away from your parents. Not much wrong with being eleven and wondering if you’ll still have a house left to come back to.
Aslan used to be someone you couldn’t help but disappoint.
Edmund leaves for longer than usual, almost a year, and comes back with the fragments of a beard clinging to his jaw, a hollow look in his eyes, and a scar all down his right shoulder, the origins of which he is determined to leave a mystery to his siblings. He sits and says nothing as Lucy shaves his face for him - his arm is too stiff for him to reach - and when a man called Reuben comes calling at his apartment, he tells him to fuck off in a voice still accented by the east, his syllables crisp and hard.
“Fix your accent,” Susan tells him, sitting at his wooden kitchen table with his penknife in her hands. “And you haven’t cleaned this properly. There’s blood all in the joints.”
Edmund glowers at her, and looks about to speak, but Lucy has her hands on his jaw and a knife to his throat, even if it is for shaving, and he isn’t that suicidal.
“We all know what you do in Europe, Eddy,” Lucy says airily. “Sometimes I wish I could join you. You aren’t secret, you know. All Joseph Conrad, all suits and ties. You know.”
Edmund sighs, and the two sisters wait.
“What else am I supposed to do?” He says, cleanly-shaven, looking so much like the thirteen-year-old on the beach that Susan’s grip on the knife is white with cold, “What else? I have all these skills. I might as well use them. I’m not getting any better.”
But at least he doesn’t sound ashamed.
Susan knows that to the rest of the world, they are an enigmatic troupe. A group of four that draw together when even slightly provoked, like some easily-startled sea creature. People wonder what still ties them together, all these years forward when they all have their own lives - people wonder why none of the four of them have settled down, why all of them group together and drink until sunrise and talk about old friends in a bizarre, completely nonsensical fashion.
What does Dr Pevensie, tenured professor in Classics, have to do with Miss Pevensie the nurse who has, quite infamously in medical circles, never once vomited at the horrors of the trauma ward on which she works? What does Mr Pevensie, civil servant and renowned - ahum, for his proclivities - have in common with Miss Pevensie, a polite young secretary working diligently for her elders and betters?
Susan looks up, and keeps her eyes open during the prayers.
At her side, always at her side, her siblings do the same.