tagNovels and NovellasElizabeth 08: Generations

Elizabeth 08: Generations


Every summer that goes by for a decade or more now, I tell myself this is the last bikini season for me; but the following summer I invariably find that it still fits and I still look as presentable as could be expected for my late forties. But even had I been concerned that my prime was finally past as I blossomed forth from Elizabeth and Jonathan's seaside cottage on that sunny afternoon, I would have surely allowed for one last hurrah of our youth; after all, that was what the holiday was for. One does not worry excessively among appearances among old and dear friends, especially not one of our generation who lost so many precious friends to the war. Thank heavens for those that survived!

Of course, I most certainly would have worried a great deal had I known what was underfoot with poor Margaret. But having not seen her since she was a child, and knowing her mother's talent for putting people at ease with their insecurities, I never could have guessed at what was to come. In the event, however, I must confess that when I blossomed forth from their cottage in my bright red bikini and feasted my eyes on Teddy in his equally skimpy trunks, his sister's self-consciousness was the last thing on my mind!

"Auntie Agnes!" exclaimed two of the young women who were playing in the sand with Teddy. "It's lovely to see you!" added one of them as they both threw themselves at me. Catherine and Margaret, I realized in the bewildered instant in which I found myself sandwiched in their embrace. Their two eldest, and the only ones old enough to remember the last time we had met, they of course looked nothing like the goofy little girls they had been on that occasion. Teddy, flanked by two other young women, looked on in polite silence from their tidal pool while their father appeared from somewhere to take his turn greeting me. As for his two friends, I presumed the blonde girl was Lillian, the "baby" at sixteen and an actual baby the last time I had seen her; the lovely plumpish redhead in a one-piece suit was to remain a mystery to me for the moment.

"Catherine! Margaret! My, how you have both grown! You both look so beautiful!" It was true, they did. That Margaret was wearing athletic shorts and a men's undershirt in lieu of swimwear did nothing to detract from her lovely blue eyes and dark ringlets, a perfect mixture of her parents' best features. Nor did it occur to me to wonder why she was attired in that way; I had been shy at her age as well.

"Thank you, Auntie Agnes," said Catherine, who, in an even more revealing bikini than my own, was clearly not shy. "You're looking lovely as well."

"Is all that Mother and Dad have told us about your adventures true?" demanded Margaret. "New York? The Caribbean? All through the war?"

"Girls, give her a minute to relax," came Jonathan's gentle voice. "You've got all week to bombard her with questions. Besides, I want a hug as well!"

As his two daughters released me with a laugh at his request, I was at last treated to a momentary look at Jonathan before he took me in his arms. He had aged at least as well as I had, and had been fortunate enough to weather the war with no lasting damage. His pale hair was a shade or two lighter, but still mostly there in any event; and his body was shapely as ever in his black swimming trunks. "You're looking wonderful as well!" I exclaimed, returning his hug eagerly. Catherine and Margaret snickered at the sight, and I wondered what they might think if they knew just how close their father and I had been back in the day.

"Likewise," Jonathan said. "I trust you and Elizabeth got off to a good start on catching up on the trip?"

"A good start, yes," I said. It had been a four-hour drive to the coast from their suburban home, where I had spent the last night after arriving quite late in the evening on the train. Elizabeth had been detained by some work back at home while the rest of the family had enjoyed their first week at the seaside; and so my arrival had been timed to coincide with hers. "But so much more ground to cover, with all of you!" I glanced up at the cottage, expecting to see Elizabeth on her way down the hill, but there was no sign of her yet. "She'll be right down as well. Just changing into her suit, as far as I know."

"I'm ever so sorry Irene and Gregory weren't able to join us," Jonathan said. "Their excuse sounded awfully clumsy to me, as well. Not even a free weekend away from summer school?"

"I thought the same, and Elizabeth said in the car that she did too," I admitted. "I think she's more disappointed than either of us is, even. But I imagine after the war and all that, not everyone is up to revisiting their salad days, you know." My unspoken thoughts of our dear Benjamin hung heavy in the summer air; it would never be a true reunion without him, after all. And we all wondered just how happy she really was with Gregory, given how near their marriage had come to collapsing before the war. But this joyous occasion was no time to dwell on that tragedy, and so I let out a guilty laugh and changed the subject. "Besides...I don't think Elizabeth fancied a long automobile ride with Iron Bladder Irene!"

Jonathan laughed in agreement. "How many stops did you make?"

"Three." Elizabeth drank far less nowadays than she had done back in Westfordshire City, but four pregnancies and years of overindulging on tea and wine had taken their toll. "At one of them she even said, 'You can see why I wasn't terribly sorry Irene was unable to join us!'"

"I rather think she is in fact hurt, though," Jonathan said. "We are all so long overdue to be together again, the whole gang."

"Well, you know it would never really be 'the whole gang' without Benjamin, Jonathan. Perhaps that is even why..."

"Probably," Jonathan conceded.

That poignant matter was quickly relegated to the back burner when Elizabeth appeared at last, in a red one-piece swimsuit a shade or two darker than mine. Characteristically uninhibited even by the presence of her four children and their friend, she had made no effort to hide her still-robust bush, which was on proud display on either side of her suit. I rather suspected her children were all used to that sight, as none of them batted an eye as she embraced their father and received his welcome. "How have the kids been?" she asked.

"Catherine's been flirting left and right, Margaret is off in her own world, Lillian is surly whenever she's not the centre of attention, and Teddy is utterly oblivious to Katie, who's crazy about him. She's our neighbour girl, incidentally," he added to me. We all looked on as the adorable redhead laughed a bit too loudly at Teddy's latest joke while he paid more attention to his sandcastle than to her.

"All perfectly normal, then," Elizabeth said, and we shared a laugh.

As if on cue, all three girls then found it in their hearts to greet their mother. "You didn't burn the house down in our absence, did you, Mother?" Margaret teased.

"Only your room, dear," Elizabeth said. Then, turning serious, she added, "Did you forget your bathing suit again, Margaret?"

"No!" Margaret said, a hint of defence in her voice as she turned and retreated to help her brother and Katie with the sandcastle.

"She told me she did," Jonathan said as soon as she was out of earshot.

"And you didn't offer to buy her another one?"

"She's nineteen years old, she can take care of her own problems," Jonathan replied.

"But that's so unlike her," Elizabeth mused. To me she added, "Margaret always has been the most responsible one."

All at once, I was quite sure I knew just why Margaret had been "forgetting" her bathing suit; and I also had no doubt that both of her parents knew as well. But of course that was not to be discussed while the poor dear was only feet away from us.

Alas, what happened next left no room for such decorum. As Elizabeth, Jonathan and I strolled down to the waterline to continue our efforts at reacquainting, a woman our age whom I judged to be Katie's mother appeared by the tidal pool. I was proven correct in my supposition, for she announced, "Katie, come on, dear, we've got the matinee in an hour."

"Certainly, Mum," Katie said. She stood up, and I could tell she was hoping Teddy would take note of her beautiful cherubic figure. I did; but it would appear he did not. Katie was not to be deterred, however. She asked her mother, "Say, can't Teddy join us?"

Teddy proved just as obstinate in his obliviousness to it all. "Oh, that's very kind of you, Katie, but I think with Mother and Auntie Agnes here, it's time for our family swim." He looked up at his parents and me. "Isn't it?" We could see hope in the poor dear's eyes!

"Katie, I'm afraid we haven't an extra ticket anyway," her mother said. "Perhaps next time, Teddy?"

"Oh, of course!" Teddy said.

"But Mum," Katie protested, "You said -"

"Come along, my dear!" her mother interrupted, just a touch of an edge on the command, and they were gone.

"Teddy," Elizabeth said, also rather sternly. "Now that you've suggested it, a family swim is a wonderful idea."

"Oh, Mum, I was only trying to beg off the afternoon with her." Teddy did not look up from the sandcastle.

"Well, you've succeeded, and now you're going to do just as you said you were going to do," Elizabeth replied.

"No more excuses, Ted," Jonathan warned him, heading off what looked to have been a smart response. "You said you were going swimming with us, now you're going to do it."

"As are we all," Elizabeth said. "I know you four all want to catch up with Auntie Agnes as much as your father and I do. Come on, everyone, let's get in the water."

Ted reluctantly stood up and brushed the sand off his knees. All three girls joined us in the tide without complaint.

But Elizabeth had one last compliant. "For heaven's sake, Margaret, you don't want to go swimming in those clothes. If you've forgotten your suit, you may borrow one of mine. We'll wait."

"Oh, I'm perfectly happy with these clothes, Mother," Margaret insisted. "Come on, let's swim!"

"Margaret, no," Elizabeth insisted. "Those clothes aren't made for swimming, the saltwater could be quite hard on the fabric, and it might even be dangerous."

"Then I just won't go!" Margaret insisted, stomping back up onto the dry sand.

"Margaret, don't be such a child! I have a beautiful blue suit you may borrow; it should fit you perfectly well."

I had feared Elizabeth was pushing her daughter too far; and regrettably, I was correct. "But I won't be beautiful in it!" Margaret snapped. "I'll look like..." She gestured at her mother's stray pubic hair peeking out of her own suit. "I'll look like you! And I'm the only girl among us who will!" She started to cry, and broke into a run for the cottage. "Leave me alone!"

"Absolutely daft of me that I never saw this coming," Elizabeth told me over cocktails at the beach-side café later on that evening. "Of course Margaret is uncomfortable in a bathing suit, and of course seeing her dowdy old mother setting an example would only hurt rather than help, especially with her sisters lolling about comfortably in their two-piece suits. Honestly, Agnes, I had such high hopes she might yet dodge what I lived through. But the world has not changed nearly that much, has it?"

"In all I have seen, Elizabeth, I'm afraid I must agree with you," I said. "No matter where you go in this world, being different takes some getting used to, and being unabashed about your differences takes a lot of work. But you know, you were able to come to terms with it and then some. Margaret will, too, in her own time!" I silently hoped I was right, for poor Margaret was sulking in her room as her mother and I spoke, despite the vibrant nightlife in the resort town that was ideal for a young adult like herself. Jonathan and the other three children had gone off to see a show at the drive-in theatre, and so Elizabeth and I had at long last been left alone to catch up. But instead, the talk had mostly been of Margaret.

"I hope that is true," Elizabeth said. "It is just that Margaret is nineteen now. By that age, I had worked through my angst on the matter, and to my knowledge she did not live through the horrors I experienced at school. If so, she kept it all very much to herself. And so I had hoped the danger was past." She set down her glass and sighed. "But some things never change!"

"She is a beautiful young woman, Elizabeth," I said. "And she will come to see it in her own good time. Lovely to see all six of you again, really. I am so very glad you invited me."

"That's beautiful, Agnes," Elizabeth said with a relieved smile. "I needed that just now, thank you. I hope you are adjusting to being back home?"

"It is not easy," I had to admit. Having weathered an ill-fated marriage just after the war, I had gone back overseas for a time to clear my head, and had ultimately stayed flung to the four winds while Elizabeth and Jonathan were raising their four children. The life of a writer is hell with respect to self-discipline and holding oneself to deadlines and topics and the like, but it did offer me a great deal of freedom. From America to Australia, I had enjoyed a rootless lifestyle and seen horizons I had never dared imagine in my youth on the farm.

But I had also missed out on watching my friends raise their families, and so this holiday was a delightful opportunity to catch up with Elizabeth and Jonathan and their now-grown children. The war had come and gone, Jonathan serving through it as an intelligence officer and losing nothing but a bit of his hearing, thank heavens. (I had served as a correspondent in a number of godforsaken locales, but that is another story for another time.) Afterward, Jonathan's legal practice and Elizabeth's editing and publishing work had grown successful enough for them to leave Westfordshire City and its wild life behind shortly before Teddy was born. With plans yet for one more baby after him, they had bought a lovely house in a quiet country town where life had been more than agreeable for a young family. And for the most part it still was.

As their young family included three daughters, though, Elizabeth had always been plagued throughout their childhood by a minor but persistent concern that one or all of them would inherit the unusually abundant pubic hair that had inspired such misery in her younger years. Given that Jonathan was the polar opposite of his hirsute wife in that respect, there had been some hope that their daughters would escape her unpleasant experience. In the event that they did not, Elizabeth had often told herself that perhaps the world had changed and her girls would not suffer as she had. Back in Westfordshire City, in any event, Irene had become quite an important figure at Elizabeth's old school, and she had assured Elizabeth and Jonathan in her letters that bullying was never tolerated anymore on her watch. That offered hope that the same was true of schools everywhere. (Westfordshire City being on a sharp decline in those years, Elizabeth had, despite her close friendship with Irene, elected not to send any of her children to her old school.)

Elizabeth, though she respected her children's privacy, had seen enough along the way to discern in good time who was and was not destined to follow in her footsteps. They had nearly won the game of genetic roulette: Catherine and Lillian had inherited Jonathan's fair and sparse hair, both on their heads and elsewhere. Teddy had taken after his mother; but that was in style among men these days and Teddy had never shown any sign of displeasure with his heavy adornment. Nor, Elizabeth assured me, had he ever wanted for attention among the young women of his school, from which he had just graduated. Indeed, I had privately but immensely enjoyed the view of the young man in his swimming garb while on the beach that very day, like the dirty old lady I was well on my way to becoming! Only Margaret had fallen victim to the same toss of the dice that had sentenced Elizabeth to such merciless criticism and teasing as a young woman.

In a noble effort to avoid the needless shame to which Elizabeth had fallen victim as a teenager, and reasoning that the others might have some insecurities about other characteristics as well, she and Jonathan had kept to a certain openness with their bodies while raising the children. All degrees of nudity had been perfectly acceptable while changing clothes or bathing. Neither of them ever expressed any need for modesty, and although the children had established their own boundaries as they grew up, they had also been provided with a first-hand lesson in the reality of what adult bodies looked like, hair and all. "But I guess I ought to have known that alone would not do," Elizabeth conceded now. "Who has ever been happy about growing up to look like her mother anyway?" And at that, we shared a laugh through our despair for Margaret.

"Excuse me, Elizabeth?"

We both set down our glasses, and turned to see Katie's mother approaching our table. "Phyllis, what a lovely surprise!" Elizabeth said, standing up to greet her neighbour. "Allow me to introduce a dear old friend of mine, Agnes Marlston. I believe you saw -"

Phyllis did not shake my hand; she nearly pumped it to oblivion. "The Agnes Marlston?! The war writer? My word, Elizabeth told me she lived in Westfordshire City before the war, and one hears so much of the various characters from those days, and I always wondered whom she might have rubbed shoulders with in those days. But you! I adored your column back in the war! You had a way of always finding hope and being honest about the brutality all at once!"

"Thank you," I said, suppressing a shy laugh. This was not the first time and it would not be the last, but it never became any less pleasantly embarrassing when a stranger recognized me. "Won't you join us for a drink?"

"I'd dearly love to, and if you don't mind, Ms. Marlson, I do hope we'll have a chance to get to know one another while you're here; but I'm afraid I cannot join you tonight." She turned to Elizabeth. "I only stopped by for a word about Teddy and Katie, actually."

"Oh, dear." Elizabeth nodded. "I had actually hoped to apologize for Teddy's thoughtless behaviour this afternoon. Jonathan and I are going to have a word with him about that just as soon as we have a moment alone with him."

"I'm afraid it's rather worse than just refusing to join us for the matinee," Phyllis said. "To tell the truth, I'm quite sure Katie had no interest in going in the first place, and at her age who could blame her? No, just an hour or so ago, they saw one another at the popcorn stand at the theatre, and Katie, well, I don't think she wanted to miss another opportunity like this afternoon, so she asked him to be her date for the summer youth club dance next week."

"Good for her!" Elizabeth said. "I wish I had had such confidence at her age." Then she frowned. "Please, tell me Teddy said yes, or at least declined graciously. I shall be utterly cross with him if not!"

"Yes, well, that is just the problem," Phyllis said. "It seems he was quite polite in declining, and explained that he had already asked Joan Benson, the boathouse keeper's daughter."

"Joan?" Elizabeth asked. "Why, I don't believe I've ever seen Teddy say one word to her!"

"It would appear he hasn't," Phyllis said. "You see, Katie saw her in the ladies' room during intermission and, gracious child that she is, she offered her congratulations at being Teddy's date. Joan replied, and I quote, 'Teddy who? I'm going with some silly boy down from Birmingham who'll be working for my father.'"

"That little wretch," Elizabeth said.

"I wish I could disagree," Phyllis said. "Katie's utterly inconsolable that her friend would lie to her like that, and I just -" She paused and turned to me. "They've been friends since they were children," she explained. "We've been coming here for years, and each summer Elizabeth and I both knew an incident like this could be on the horizon. But I never imagined it should play out like this! Elizabeth, I know, given what a lovely couple you and Jonathan are, you would not let this stand."

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