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A Coming to Terms

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As a rule, Barney Snaith preferred not to remember his schooldays and the people who had once figured so vividly in them.  Let the past stay the past.   Let bygones be bygones.  Forgive and forget.  All those clichés fit nicely to describe his feelings on the matter, although as a writer, he would have used different words if he'd been at his desk.  John Foster, for instance, would probably compare the human memory to an ocean or a similar metaphor.  Both were seemingly bottomless, full of unexpected mystery - but dredging the bottom might well bring up things that prickled, bit and stung.  Things best left alone and unexplored.

But once in awhile, the subject popped up unexpectedly.

Like the night, he and Valancy dined at his father's.  The dining room had altered little after he'd left home.  Rich colors.  Opulent furnishings.  All very elegant, but also a little....cold. Sitting in the same chair as he had years ago brought back memories of meals eaten as a youth, in which he usually wasn't quite sure what to say to the man at the head of the table - although his father had never had the same trouble.

Time hadn't changed much there. He and his wife were comfortable sitting in silence, if they happened to have nothing to say.  But his father had always been cut from a different cloth.  Small talk was second nature to Dr. Redfern, and he indulged in it unabashedly.

"I got a piece of mail for you from your school. Since I don't think they have your current address. Anyway, there's a reunion in a month. Wouldn't it be nice to see all your old friends? Catch up on old times, eh, Bernie?"

Again, Barney tensed, then he looked over at his wife and relaxed. He had a cast iron excuse.

"There's a much more important event happening around that time. I can't possibly miss the birth. And I'm told that babies often have a habit of arriving on their own schedules, rather than the doctor's."

"Quite right," his father agreed readily. "You came early, as I recall. Near midnight - but you weren't due for another three days. Second happiest day of my life."

"And what was the first?" Valancy asked to save her husband the embarrassment of asking.

"My wedding day, of course."  His eyes twinkled.  "But Bernie's birth day was a close second. You'll see when your time comes.  Babies grow up faster than you expect.  Before you know it, you'll be dropping him off at boarding school."

The maid chose that moment to interrupt, coming in to clear the soup plates and bring in the next course: lamb chops with roast potatoes and peas.

"Boarding school?" Valancy said faintly, after they had sampled their food.

"Not until he's much older - eleven at least."  His father looked at Valancy.  "Something wrong?  Sauce too rich?"

"Oh no," Valancy said hastily.

Barney knew it wasn't the food that was troubling his wife.

*

"February is an odd little month," Barney said later that night.  "Tucked in between January and March, almost a blink-and-you'll-miss it month.  Plus it's a leap year - what if our son is born on the 29th?  We'll have to assign him a mandatory birthday for next year."

"Why is everyone so sure I'll have a boy?" his wife asked, a bit testily.

"I would think that that's something only the mother-to-be would know for sure," he said. HIs wife seemed more fragile these days, which he could understand - not only was there another life growing inside her, but it was one that everyone - from family member to acquaintance - felt free to comment on.

"Well, I've honestly no idea.  Of course, Mother's hoping for a boy.  Or if it must be a girl, that she at least be pretty."

"Just pretty? What about character? Courage, kindness, wit, any of those an acceptable substitute?" he teased.

"I just hope he - or she - is healthy," Valancy said fervently.

"Of course. And what I meant to say was that I'm hoping it's a girl.  Though I won't send a boy back either."

"Really?"

"Your cousin's already had two boys.  And as a rule, little girls are more civilized than little boys.  Sugar and spice, and all that."

His wife smiled. "There's a lot of spice under all that sugar."

"But it's a more civilized viciousness, you have to admit.  Plus we wouldn't have to worry about sending her away to school."

"That reminds me, why don't you set your father straight about why you don't want to go your reunion?"

"Sometimes it's kinder to let people keep their illusions. Not everyone prefers the unvarnished truth the way we do. Besides," he said, "it was so long ago."

"I don't see how avoiding the subject is best in the long run. If we have a boy, it will just come up again."

Barney resented that, no matter how gently phrased, there was still the implication that he was being a coward.  Which was rather unfair.  After all, his wife's sudden bout of honesty with her family had come only after she had received the wrong medical diagnosis and believed herself to be dying.  It was a lot harder to be blunt with one's family when both were in good health, and the specter of death was far away.

"As you know, Father's always been...well, easy with people.  It's always confounded him that I'm not.  Right now, at least, it isn't necessary to remind Father that I wasn't exactly a social success in my youth.  Besides there are much worse things that happen to kids than a little teasing at school."

"It sounded like more than a little teasing when you told me.  Much more."

"Well, I wasn't in the calmest frame of mind at the time. I thought you'd left me.  Naturally, I over-exaggerated."  He could tell she didn't believe him but let the subject drop.  They'd vowed to always be honest with each other, but there were times when it was better not to pry too far.

*

He'd gone away to school when he was eleven, and he hadn't protested because it seemed childish, and anyway, his father was thrilled that he'd finally be able to give his only son one of the few things money couldn't buy: Company of his own age.  Companionship.  Friends.

Of course, that meant first having to navigate the usual questions about his surname.

"Redfern?  That Redfern?  Any relation to the Purple Pills guy?"

"He's my father."

He hadn't consider lying - it just seemed that it would come back to embarrass him, so what was the point?

"Tell us about your father's latest inventions.  I'm sure they're fascinating," came later on.  At the time, there had been things he'd have been willing to do to fit in, but as it happened, mocking his father was not one of them. 

So they'd dragged him into the swimming room and held him underwater, until his lungs burned and when they finally let him up, he could do nothing for a few minutes but gasp and choke and splutter.

But then he'd given in.  And done what they'd said.

Back in his room, Barney noticed an unfamiliar figure.   He couldn't very well tell the boy to leave - he wouldn't or he would and go directly to inform the others that Redfern was sniveling in his room.  And his humiliation would be complete. 

But maybe not. 

"You're soaked. Here's a towel." 

"Thanks."  It slowly dawned on Barney that the other boy had come in not to mock, but help.

"So what happened to you?"

Don't snitch, or your life will be even more unbearable. Which is hard to believe, but still...  "I slipped and fell in the swimming tank."

"Really?  You don't strike me as the clumsy type." 

He shrugged and pretended to be absorbed in buttoning his shirt. 

"You know, Redfern, I had a friend who did the same thing his first term here."

"Really?" Barney couldn't help but feel oddly cheered.

"And - don't spread this around - but I was so miserable when I first came here that I wrote my father and asked him if I could come home."

"What did he say?"  What would his own father say if he were to write him of this?

"Said he understood I was homesick, but that it was natural, and that I had to stick it out.  Said that the first term is always the hardest.  And he's right.  It's just rough right now because you're new."

 "Thanks."  He wanted to beg for more advice, something, anything that would help him survive here but restrained himself. 

Footsteps sounded in the hall; it was almost time for dinner.

"If I were you, I'd just act like it never happened,"  the boy said, with a shrug, turning to go.  Apparently, he could read minds, too.  "What else can you do, right?"

What else indeed?

It was true that they never pulled that particular "prank" again, but he never quite lost the fear that they would.

*

"I've been thinking that I want to try something different," Barney said to his editor a week later. "I'm getting tired of nature writing. There's only so much drama one can wring from wandering around in the woods. I'd rather attempt something more... challenging. Like a novel."

"If you ask me, you should stick to what you're good at," his editor told him, though he was rarely consulted in such matters. "And you could hardly publish it as John Foster."

"What about Barney Snaith then?" suggested the owner of that name.

"There's an idea," but his editor sounded distinctly unenthused. "But if you want a challenge, why don't you try climbing Mount Everest? Or go to America and travel west? Plenty of drama there."

"Why don't I write two books then?" Barney countered.

"Do you expect to have much free time after the birth?" his editor asked, as he smothered a smile.

"I don't see why not."

"You might want to wait and see on that one," his editor advised, knowing full well that his client would only take firsthand experience as proof for this matter. "By the way, my oldest daughter is very impressed by the fact that I know John Foster personally."

"She wants to write, too?" Barney asked. "Or does she just love nature?"

"Both," his editor said.  "She's twelve now.  Getting to be quite a young lady.  Children grow up fast, you know."

"So I'm told," Barney agreed politely.  "How long has she been bitten by the scribbling bug?"

"She's been writing for a few years. Just out of curiosity," his editor said, "when did you start?"

"Around the same age," Barney said.

*

He'd been nine or ten when he'd started "scribbling," but it had only been when he was eleven and at school that he'd ever shown his writing to anyone.  Something of a personal nature, that is.

"Mr. Redfern, a word about your essay, if you don't mind?"

As the rest of his classmates slipped out the door, he'd waited, trying not to panic.  No teacher had ever done this before, and it could only be for one reason - that he'd managed once again to mess up.

"It's excellent  Exactly what I was looking for."

"It...it was?" Barney stammered.

"Yes.  You took a very - shall we say - uncomfortable experience and made it mean something.  Pain, shame, all those things that we'd prefer to avoid can actually be the catalyst for great creativity.  You've got the makings of a real writer.

"Thank you."

"So...I hope things are settling down for you.  First term is always the hardest, you know."

"It was just a prank, sir," he muttered. "No harm done."

 "Anyway," his teacher continued, clearly relieved to have that subject over with.  "Literature is a jealous mistress.  If you're serious about devoting your life to her.  She'll demand a lot of your time."

 The word 'mistress" made Barney uncomfortable, as after once hearing an acquaintance of his father's described as such, he'd later asked his father for a definition, and his father had changed the subject with the promptness that only came when the subject was somehow improper.  It would be only years later before he would understand what his teacher had meant.  However, he'd started writing in earnest after that.  character sketches, descriptions of the countryside and woods to which he escaped to whenever he could, even occasionally, poetry.

He kept all this secret, of course. 

Still, perhaps there was one other person who might be interested.  When he was finally free to come home, that is.

*

"What I honestly don't understand," his editor said, "is why every writer I've ever known has either too much confidence or not enough?  Every single one, regardless of how much talent they actually had. Most peculiar."

"I've often wondered that myself," Barney agreed.

"Sometimes my daughter's convinced that she's the next ...oh, Dickens, and other times, she believes she's completely talentless and is wasting her time. Very odd, if you ask me. She does need plenty of practice to improve, but that will come in time. Raw talent will only take you so far. I'm biased. of course, but I don't see why she shouldn't try if she has her heart set on it. "

"I think if she's truly a writer at heart, she doesn't have much choice in the matter, " Barney said.

"Perhaps.  Of course, there are endless drawbacks..."

"No money in it?" Barney suggested, mouth twisting in an ironic grin.

"Exactly," his editor agreed unwittingly.  "Really, how many people manage to make a living at it?  Writing is the world's most precarious profession."

"So I've been told," Barney said.

"Present company excepted," his editor corrected hastily.

"Of course.  And getting back to what you said before about why writers sometimes lack confidence in their skill?  Perhaps because when they want to challenge themselves, they get told to stick to what's familiar."

"Touché," his editor agreed.

"It may seem strange to a non-writer," Barney said, "and you can't tell John Foster I said this, but the discouragement you hear in your youth never quite goes away. It's often lurking in the background when you sit down before a blank sheet of paper."

"No, I suppose I can see that.  So, if you don't mind telling me, who was it who first tried to discourage you?"

*

He'd thought the end of the term would never come, but at last it did. He'd had to walk by a group of his classmates ogling his father's new car, but no one had said anything. Derision? Or was it envy? Both were unwelcome, but if he had no choice, he'd take the latter.

And he'd hoped that his father hadn't noticed the whole thing, but he had, of course. Though he waited until they were well away from the school, before commenting.

"Bernie, I know you're anxious to get home. But that was rude. Next time, I expect you to introduce me to your friends."

Oh. That was it. "They aren't my friends."

"Are you sure?"

He wondered if it was actually possible to expire of embarrassment.

"They're just admiring the car, Dad."

"I see. Well, are you settling in? Are you happy there?"

"I...don't know."

"It's a straightforward question. Yes or no? You're lucky to be there. It'll give you advantages I never had. Give you a leg up."

"I know." He took a deep breath and plunged on. "It's different there, though. The other boys...well, they don't seem very friendly."

"Do you mean bullies then? They're found everywhere, not just at posh schools. There's always going to be one or two. Happened to me, happens to everyone at one point or the other. Perhaps this is all my fault. I know I sat you down and lectured you on how I wanted you to behave there. But I didn't mean I don't want you to defend yourself if you have to. Look, even if the school punishes you, and you get in trouble, you won't with me. I'll understand."

Apparently, his father had only to deal with a couple. Yet another area in which they differed.  What in the world was wrong with him? 

Time to change the subject.

"Dad," he said after a minute. "I think I might want to be a writer when I grow up."

"Your mother had a bit of a literary bent." Which he hadn't known. "Wrote me poems when we were courting. Of course, they mostly went over my head, but it was clear she had talent. But how many people do you know who actually make a living at it?"

He didn't want to answer, but at last he did.

"I don't know."

His father's reply came swiftly. "Neither do I. But I can assure you it's darn few. Writing's a nice little hobby, but you're going to want to do something practical." He paused. "Which reminds me, I got your end of term report. Your marks are excellent. As usual. But there's more to life than books, eh? Time to start making more of an effort with the other boys, right?"

His father, Barney knew, was an intelligent man. But in this matter, his father was wrong.

No matter how much he polished his shoes, his speech, his manner and his dress, he would never fit in.

Moreover, there was nothing he could do about it.

*

The night before the birth, Barney dined with his father, who was staying a nearby inn.  They would have happily put him up in their home, but every available bed had already been claimed by Valancy's clan.

"Well, Father, it looks as if tomorrow the little one will arrive - that is if he's on time.  The doctor says if all goes as planned, you'll have a new grandchild."

"Now that the child is about to arrive, might you attend the reunion after all? Provided he - or she - is healthy?" Dr. Redfern asked.

What the hell, he thought.  Maybe Valancy's right.  Maybe it's time to speak the truth.

"Did you ever stop and wonder, Father, why it was, in all the years I spent at that school, that I never brought any friends home?"

There it was out.

His father's reply came instantly.  "As I recall, we traveled a lot over your holidays. Never really thought about(H it."  Then he sighed.  "I know you weren't happy there. I'm not as blind as you think. But what was the alternative? You deserved every advantage I could give you."

As his son didn't speak, Dr. Redfern continued.  "When you have a child, you'll feel the same way.  You'll want to keep him at home, but eventually, you'll have to push him out of the nest. Let him spread his wings. That's the only choice you really have in the end."

"Even if the cost is your son's happiness?"

When he replied, his father's tone was as cold as the light from the winter stars.

"Before you sit in judgment of me, Bernard, you might want to wait until you're a parent."

When he was a parent, Barney thought, if a bunch of savages tried to drown his son, he'd hunt them down and return the favor.  If not worse.  Maybe he'd skip that part and just go directly to strangling them with his bare hands.

But then that would be exactly what his son wouldn't want.

And suddenly, he understood.  His father was wrong about many things regarding his son, but not this.

Suddenly, shame washed over him. "I'm sorry." It sounded so inadequate, but this time he meant it.

"I know.  Quite all right.  You're anxious about the birth."

That, Barney thought, was as close to an apology or acknowledgment as he was going to get.  But maybe  now we can finally put the subject behind us.  Maybe I can finally forgive him for not understanding.  Or - more accurately - not understanding enough.

"Let me know when your wife's up to seeing visitors," Dr. Redfern added.  'I can't wait to see the child, but I'm sure with all the Stilrlings already there, it might be best to give her some space.  Don't want to overwhelm her when she's already going to be exhausted."

"I will, Father.  And we do want to you to visit, but probably in a few days."

"My first grandchild.," his dad mused.  "I wish you both the best of luck.  And, of course, every happiness."

Because he does. Understand that is. In his own way.

*

The night of the birth, Barney had gone out for a brief walk to clear his head, as right now, there was nothing he could possibly do for his wife but wait until the birth was complete.  Once home, Barney took one look at the flock of Valancy's relations in the front room and ducked into a side room to compose himself.

Good, I'm alone. No, wait.

In the dim glow of the fireplace, two figures were absorbed in debate.

"...never seen anything like this in the Stirlings," Olive was saying.  "Or the Wansbarras.  Most peculiar."

"Well, there's still his side that we know nothing about," Uncle Benjamin replied, clearly itching to explore that subject in depth.

Barney cleared his throat. "Good evening."

They both jumped, then pretended they hadn't.

"Ah, so here's the new father," Uncle Benjamin said, clapping a hand to his shoulder.  "Here's a riddle for you.  What does instilling morals in a child and a herd of elephants have in common?"

"What?"  (Barney couldn't help but notice Olive rolling her eyes.)

"No small feat," chuckled Uncle Benjamin, beaming.  "Congratulations.  Go right in.  Don't want to spoil the surprise."

Surprise? He wouldn't have said it like that if there was anything seriously wrong now, would he? But the doctor was beaming, too,

"Mr. Redfern, congratulations! You have a healthy baby girl."

Thank goodness.

"And a son!"

Twins? Well, obviously, what other explanation could there be?

"It was a surprise for me, as well," the doctor continued. "A bit touch and go with the boy at first, but now there's nothing to worry about. They're both doing fine."

As Barney entered the room, his wife's weary but joyful face was all the reassurance he needed.

"I see you've managed to confound your clan yet again," he said. "Not to mention your husband. How are you feeling?"

"Exhausted, but it's a happy kind of tiredness," Valancy said.

"So I'm told there's never been twins on your side before."

"Not that I know of anyway. And you?"

"My mother had a twin, but she died as an infant. We didn't talk about it. Fortunately," he hurried on, wanting to change the subject, "these two are healthy. No need to worry, the doctor says."

Valancy smiled teasingly. "I think the girl has your eyebrows."

"Poor kid," he said, bending over to take a closer look. "I hope that's not all of mine I've bequeathed her."

"Oh no, she's beautiful. Perfect." "Absolutely perfect," he agreed, meaning every word, though even perfect didn't come close to capturing how exquisite his daughter was.

"And the boy definitely has your eyes," his wife continued.

So this is how it begins, Barney thought. The endless comparisons to the members in your clan. We're going to have to make sure the girl grows up knowing that there's more to her than just her looks. If we can. And the boy? If he's homely, it won't matter as much. Boys can get by on character if they have to. But what if he has my temperament?

Then he felt a stab of guilt.  Already I'm judging them. Now is hardly the time to worry about that.

"Don't you think?" his wife asked, wondering what lay beneath the depths of her husband's silence. He was clearly thrilled at the births, but there was something else on his mind.

"If they don't change color when he's older," he replied. "He's so...small.  So fragile."

"They both are. Oh, Barney, now that he's here, you can't possibly send him away. Not without his sister."

He hesitated. As he did, someone knocked on the door, demanding entrance.

"Can we have a moment alone?" he called.  "Just one moment, please!"

"I don't think there's much chance of that tonight," Valancy sighed.  ""But I'll giver you full marks for trying."

"Anyway, I was going to say that we'd only send him to boarding school with your consent." He smiled.  "But we've got plenty of time to figure it out. Together."

She still looked worried, though. "But your father...he's going to want..."  She didn't finish.

It's a parent's job to shelter their children from threats, at least when they're young, Barney thought.  Sometimes that means you have to shield them from the good intentions of their own family.

"I know. But it will be us who will make such decisions. Not your relations or mine. Of course, they'll provide us with plenty of advice, whether or not we ask for it.

"But there's so much we don't know..." Valancy said.

He smiled.  "Then we'll just have to improvise."

She returned his smile, as she cradled their newborns. " That's what we both do best, isn't it?"

"I'll let you rest for now, dearest, but I'll be nearby if you need me."

As he stepped into the hall, Uncle Benjamin swooped down on him.  "Did you see the kids?  Twins, eh?  But I've got another riddle for you."

Two riddles in one night, Barney thought.  But then his riddles are kind of like toenails.  They can't help but grow on you.

"What does a Christmas goose and small children's manners have in common?  Both improve with time!"  He winked.

"A sage observation indeed," Barney said, winking back.

After all, what was a little teasing when one was amongst friends?