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Anywhere But In Between

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Where we love is home,
Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Homesick in Heaven

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In wartime, nothing is easy, Peter thinks. Not even catching a train. He'd waited for almost an hour in the hot morning sun before the Varsity Line train finally pulled into the Oxford railway station. He suspects the train will have several more delays before it reaches its destination. These days, there are always military trains and convoys that take priority on the tracks and the roads, and while the delays and reroutes are understandable, it doesn't make them any less frustrating to impatient travelers.

The train is almost full, and he's lucky there's an empty seat, even if it is next to a very large older woman, balancing an equally large basket on her knees and sweating profusely in the stuffy rail car. But she looks up at him as he approaches and smiles and pats the seat next to her.

"Here's a place, love. My, but it's a hot one out today, isn't it?"

Peter slides past her and sinks gratefully into the seat, dropping his pack to the floor and giving her a smile in return. "Yes, ma'am, very warm," he says politely, pressing against the window to accommodate her generous proportions spilling over into his seat.

"That heat seemed to just come up overnight, didn't it though?" She mops at her reddened face with a large handkerchief. "It was lovely cool just a few days ago. Terrible weather for traveling, and here's me going all the way to Cambridge. My daughter's got herself a job, helping at the airfield - she'll be a lorry driver, can you imagine?" She chuckles to herself at such an outlandish idea, then continues to chatter on. "She needs someone to look after the children, so Granny's coming to help." Here she pauses and glances at Peter. "Are you going all the way to Cambridge then?"

He nods. "Yes, ma'am."

She looks him over as the train pulls away from the station. "School? I'm surprised a fine young lad like you hasn't enlisted."

Sometimes Peter wonders if his actual age shows on his face, in a way he doesn't see when he looks in the mirror, since so many people he meets assume he's old enough to have enlisted by now. He feels like wincing every time he hears the question, but today he merely shakes his head. "No ma'am. I'm too young yet to enlist. And I'm not going there for university, just to visit family. My younger brother and sister are there, staying with our aunt and uncle for the summer."

"Oh, that's lovely. A holiday visiting family. More than I'll get, I'm afraid!" She chuckles again. "My grandchildren are quite a handful — not bad, mind you, just wild little scamps. I'll be worn out within a day!"

An hour into the trip, Peter knows all there is to know about Mrs. Pryce, her daughter Hannah , Hannah's husband Barney, who is off fighting in Africa, and the three wild little scamps, Timothy, Patsy and Michael. He also knows about the late Mr. Pryce, who was a butcher until he passed away 7 years back ("God bless him, he didn't have to know about this terrible War"), and Mrs. Pryce's two sons, Damon and John, both of whom are flying with the RAF ("I pray for them morning, noon and night, lad, and I know the Lord's keeping them safe, and that's no joke"). He knows that Mrs. Pryce is an award-winning baker and a great cook, and she presses upon him a ham sandwich ("The young man that took over Mr. Pryce's butcher shop always takes care of me, and got me this little bit of ham") as the journey drags on several hours, and many unexplained stops. "You don't want to be hungry when you arrive now, do you, lad?"

Finally the train moves steadily along, and Mrs. Pryce yawns. "Think I'll just close my eyes for a bit. I'll need to be well-rested for the children." She smiles again and urges Peter to do the same. "Nothing like a train ride for sleeping!"

"Yes, ma'am," Peter says again. He's lost track of how many times he's said it so far. She's a nice woman, generous and friendly, but Peter has to admit he's relieved when she finally drops off, and he's alone with his thoughts.

He leans his head against the window and looks out at the countryside rushing by, the fields and farmland and small villages. Sometimes, if he's not looking too hard, it reminds him of Narnia But then he sees a convoy of army trucks, heading along the road that runs alongside the railway tracks. He can't see what they're moving, but he imagines weapons under the tarps, bombs and guns and artillery, and he stops seeing any resemblance to Narnia.

He pulls the letter from Edmund from his pocket, studying it again.

 

Dear Peter,

We've been to Narnia, Lucy, Eustace and I. Well, not Narnia, really, but we traveled with Caspian to the Lone Islands and beyond. We were gone for months, maybe a year? It's impossible to know, time did get away from us at the end. Many, many adventures. We saw Aslan, and Lu and I aren't going back.

So much to tell, but it's hard in a letter. Can you possibly get away for a few days, so you can visit and we can talk? I'm sure Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta won't mind. Well, actually, they will, but we'll just surprise them with your presence.

See you soon, hopefully.

Edmund

 

Peter had written back immediately, telling Edmund of course he'd come. But then he'd had to argue with Professor Kirke who said they were at a crucial point in his studies, and if Peter broke off now, all hopes of doing well on the exam would be lost.

He finally convinced the Professor that a weekend visiting Lucy and Edmund wasn't going to cause him to forget everything he'd learned already, but only after he was standing in front of him, with his bag packed and train ticket in hand. The Professor agreed to let him go, although Peter hadn't really been asking for permission. He intended to get on the train no matter what the Professor said.

Peter doesn't care about the exam, not really. He's taking it to make his parents happy, but not because he's interested in going to university. He cares about Narnia, about his brother and sister and about what happened to them there and he can't wait to hear all about it.

The thing Peter hated most about being barred from Narnia is that Lucy and Edmund were allowed to go back. He wasn't jealous — no, he understood what Aslan meant about living in this world when He spoke to him and Susan that last day. But the idea of Lucy and Edmund returning to Narnia without him, in an another world entirely and him not able to reach them if they needed help — well, if Aslan wanted to punish Peter, that was the best way to do it. And he'll admit he's a tiny bit glad that his brother and sister are no longer allowed back in Narnia, because now that means he just has to worry about them in one world.

It's bad enough that Mum and Dad took Susan with them to America. Oh yes, an excellent opportunity for her, that holiday, and it was all completely mad. Who takes holidays in the middle of a war, crossing the sea in U-boat patrolled waters? Peter knows his father isn't just there for lecturing, because that makes no sense at all and there must be a different reason, one that he's kept to himself. But why he brought his wife and daughter with him, on such a dangerous journey, Peter will never understand. He hardly slept for days during his family’s harrowing crossing, and when he did sleep, his dreams were filled with images of burned and sinking ships, and full of the sounds of people screaming and dying. It was only when the cable came, saying that they had all arrived safely, that he was able to relax.

England is different than Narnia in so many uncountable ways, but right now it's the war that's on Peter's mind as he glances back to the window. War in England and war in Narnia — he sees again the army trucks traveling along the road, and there's a plane overhead, headed towards the local airfield. At home, in Narnia, they were all trained to fight, but what do those skills matter here? War isn't fought with swords and arrows, and none of them can fly planes or fire guns. Not yet, at least.

The problem, Peter thinks, is that maybe it's too easy to kill here. He remembers everyone he ever killed, back to Maugrim, because he was always close enough to look them in the eye, and he likes to think that was the reason he tried so hard to keep Narnia at peace. But here, in this war, it's impersonal, when you can just drop a bomb, or fire a gun, and never actually have to see the person you're fighting. It's very unlike the battles he's fought in the past, but that doesn't mean he can't do it.

Peter intends to enlist as soon as he's old enough, despite what his parents want for him. He's not interested in school here, neither in following his father into academia, nor in his mother's desire for him to become a doctor. Peter was a soldier, a fighter, before, and that's the road he sees before him in this world. He knows it won't be the same, and that there will be a lot to learn, but that's the learning he wants to do, not studying for university exams.

Peter has heard people talk about being born into the wrong place, at the wrong time, and he thinks he understands. Despite what Aslan said, despite how hard he tries, he knows that he's living in the wrong place, far away from his own time. His dreams at night are always filled with Narnia, with memories of the world and the people he loved and ruled and fought for and would have died for. When he thinks about enlisting here, he has to admit, it's not out of great love for England. England, despite being where he was born and where he will live for the rest of his life, is not home. Not like Narnia.

He's tried hard to find Narnia here, to do what Aslan wants, and make a life here, but he can't quite figure out how to stop being what he is — what Aslan made him — and learn how to be something, someone, else entirely. So he thinks enlisting is what he has to do. Even if war is completely different here, Peter knows how to fight, and kill. He remembers slogging through the mud when he didn't think he could take another step, and the smell of blood and the sounds of the wounded and the dying, and he knows that won't be different in this world, because those things are a part of every battle. He'll learn to use a gun as well as he did a sword, and he'll get used to taking orders, not giving them, even though that will be hard. He must, because he cannot fail at the task Aslan has given him.

He shakes his head, thinking what Susan would say about the irony of that, learning to live in this world by learning to kill in it. And as he thinks about his sister, wondering what she's doing in America, if she's as happy as she says in her letters, he drifts off to sleep, lulled by the motion of the train.

His dreams are, as always, of Narnia. He sees himself and Edmund, fighting back-to-back, deep in the Shuddering Wood, and he knows this is a memory. Lucy is there with her cordial when he's injured, as he knows he will be, and in that odd way of dreams, he can actually remember the taste of the cordial, that bright flavor on his tongue, and the way it burned as he swallowed it. His dreams shift to Cair Paravel, another memory, seeing Susan waiting in the great courtyard as they arrive back from the battle, her face drawn with worry, and then washing over with relief when she sees them.

The dream changes and it's no longer a memory, because this is a ship Peter has never been on. But he knows it's Narnia, because there is Caspian, and Lucy and Edmund as well, and they're all rushing to greet him, and welcome him aboard. Just like the taste of the cordial, he can smell the salt air, and feel the spray of sea on his face when the wind blows, and oh, this is a wonderful dream. The only thing missing is Susan, and Peter turns and looks behind him, staring off into the distance, straining his eyes in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her, because Susan is in America which is across the sea. There's no sign of her, but he knows, in the way one does in dreams, that she'll be joining them. Peter would like to stay in this dream forever, on the ship with Lucy and Edmund and Caspian, waiting for Susan as they keep sailing into the unknown.

He wakes when the train stops, and Mrs. Pryce is gently shaking his shoulder. "We're here, lad. Wake up now, this is the last stop." She rummages in her basket, then presses a few sweets into his hand. "Here, for your brother and sister. I spent my sugar ration on candy for my grandchildren, but these are a few I can spare."

Peter yawns and thanks her very much, although, truthfully, he's a bit disappointed to be pulled from the dream. But he's eager to see his family, and grins when he thinks how happy they'll be with the sweets. Just these few weeks away, and he's missed them all so much, and he can't wait to see his brother and sister. He stands and stretches, takes up his pack, and follows her off the train.

Even with all the stops and delays, Lucy and Edmund are still waiting when he steps onto the station platform. He just has time for a quick goodbye to Mrs. Pryce before they're crowded around him, hugging and pulling him and chattering excitedly, saying he must come with them, there's so much to tell, of Caspian and Aslan and Eustace and dragons and slavers and missing lords and stars and…

And Peter hugs them close and waits to hear the news of Home.