Caducus n. latin, inclined to fall
Her fingers danced across the dusty soil, teasing, choosing, plucking. I might have doubted, for a moment, that I had found the Megan Riley I was looking for, but there was no mistaking her dexterity. I might be more used to watching her work on electronics than in a garden, but these were the same educated hands that had saved my life in different days.
I should have been ready for anything. I had been searching for months, and had grown familiar with life in the communes, but the longer I searched the less I could imagine my one-time partner in that setting. We’d been together since we were recruited off the milkround, and in a dozen years I’d seen her in every guise the job required, but I’d never seen her in homespun clothes, with crude clogs waiting for her bare brown feet, and a straw hat hiding her face. It had been eight years, and that might have accounted for almost any change. Myself, I’ll pass for sixty in a harsh light, but Megan, when she finally turned towards me, was still girlish the wrong side of forty.
That might not have shocked me so much if I had ever known her as a girl, but at twenty-one she had been mature and guarded, and our work had only refined and sharpened her features. The Megan who turned towards me was soft and open, and it was only as she saw me, and the distrust came down like a veil, that she became truly familiar.
She had wrong-footed me, and she recovered faster.
Megan Riley: she should have been a hard, dark little Celt with those names, all ebony, cream and roses. The girl who flowed to her feet to face me was all Dane, blonde and bronze with frank brown eyes, and she matched me height for height – not that I’m a tall man, but I’m tall enough to be used to women who fit neatly to my shoulder. Maybe that was why I never had any trouble not thinking of Megan that way.
She didn’t ask how I came to be there. She only swept me up and down with a glance that left me fileted, and asked
“You’ve leave to speak to me?”
I confirmed it. I’d been around the communes enough not to seek out a communard without the proper formalities.
“I’d say you could help me finish the bed, but – you were always a clumsy oaf, and we can’t be getting your uniform dirty.”
She could see it was a little late for that concern. We’d been left with rather more supplies than we needed in a lot of respects, but I’d been travelling in that gear for over a month on that latest jaunt, and not all communes have the facilities you need to stay in barrack room order. I wondered what she’d meant to say, if she had come close to admitting that she wanted to give me her full attention, but if she had been close to slipping she wasn’t giving me time to capitalise on it.
“So. I’d thank you for checking up on me, but I can see it’s official.”
There was never any point trying to soft soap Megan.
“The Service wants you back.”
“Really? Now that’s funny. I was there when they opened the gates. You were there too. I thought they made it admirably plain – that no one who thought they had family, or friends, or plans, that were more important than the Service could expect to crawl back in when those other plans didn’t work out.”
“That wasn’t quite what we said.”
“It’s what they meant.”
I knew that as well as she did, and it left me no defences when she added
“And you would have said ‘they’ too, once.”
I ducked that one, tried to take the ‘they’ out of my manner, and said
“Megan, I’m offering you a chance to come home.”
“I am home.”
“On a commune?”
I shouldn’t have answered that way, but I couldn’t keep the contempt out of my voice.
“Christ, Megan, that’s not you. You believed in what we did.”
Her voice was very low and bitter when she said “Don’t make me a liar, Sean,” and then she turned away and made a show of collecting up her tools, and there was nothing I could do but wait for her, because I’d already fouled it up once. When she could trust herself to speak again, she asked
“Do you know what Winston Churchill used to say about democracy?”
I answered automatically, not seeing where the answer led.
“I ought to, you used to tell me often enough. He said it was the worst kind of government there was, except for all the others.”
“Yes. And that’s all I ever said our work was, the least worst option, a way to stop us falling into chaos.”
She gestured around the quiet, sunlit garden, and then, as she led me towards the barns, she said
“Well, we fell. Let’s try another way.”