Authors: Mark C. King
London was alive that warm summer day in July. The carriage ride – horse drawn, not one of those smoke belching, coal vehicles that infused your clothes with smells – was as pleasant a ride as Sigmund could remember. He glanced at the dark coat that he laid on the seat next to him, wishing he had not brought it. He would be surprised if he had it with him at the end of the day and had not forgotten it somewhere along his travels.
Moving through the London streets at a leisurely pace, passing people walking about, smiling, couples arm in arm, kids running around their parents, made him feel especially content. Sigmund didn’t even mind the
sounds produced by the steam powered carriages, as they mixed in with the preferable
of the horse drawn ones. Looking into the skies as he headed northward from the south of London, he counted no less than six dirigibles and three hot air balloons wafting through the air. Some were of the large variety used for commercial travelling, but most were of the yacht variety, rich men playing with their flying machines. The vivid colors that most of these airships bore showed splendidly in the bright London sun.
Going to see his sister, Alexis, and his niece, Sarah, was always a highlight of his week, and the weather and attitude displayed by his fellow Brits this beautiful day only served to improve his mood. As the cabbie slowed at an intersection, Sigmund caught the eye of a young lady, parasol in hand – opened against the sun. Her brown curls bounced as she turned her head away in proper – although Sigmund believed mock – modesty. They stole one last glance at each other as the carriage moved on.
Crossing Westminster bridge to the northwest side of the Thames, Sigmund looked out of his window like an eager little kid, taking in all of the activity on the river below. People were along the shores enjoying the cool water on this warm day, while boats were gliding along its reflective surface. He absently wondered what life on the water, on a merchant or cargo boat, would be like. Making a living moving up and down the Thames in his own little ship, a captain whose hours were his own. Like most things, it was probably not as good as his mind made it seem.
Continuing north, they passed Piccadilly Circus, one of the busiest intersections in all of London. The mood here was generally hectic, but today it was more of a crowded calm. There were many people walking and riding, talking, laughing, making purchases from street vendors, but no one in the usual hurried pace. It was one of those rare days where the weather dictated attitude.
The ride proceeded to the north of London, up Gloucester Place, and slowed to a stop a little south of The Regents Park. Outside of the carriage was a three storied, red brick building with white framed windows. Sigmund once again wished that his sister lived closer, or at least on the same side of the Thames. They both lived in London but nearly on opposite sides of the city. As pleasant of a ride as it was today, there were just as many, and probably more, that were not so pleasant. Still, he made sure to see her at least once a week. He and his sister had forged a close bond while young and continually fortified that bond through the challenges they had faced over the years.
Sigmund exited the carriage, careful to step around a mother and son walking hand in hand – going to the park, no doubt – and offered a generous one pound to the cab driver.
With a dismissive wave the driver said, “Sigmund, you know your money is no good with me.”
“You are too kind, Thomas. I owe you a pint.” Replied Sigmund.
Thomas snapped the reigns, started to pull away, and said over his shoulder, “Now you’re speaking my language.” A moment later he was back amidst the traffic of the street, another moving object in the heart of England.
Sigmund pulled a pocket watch out of his vest and checked the time; a few minutes to spare. Sigmund tried hard to always be on time, a lesson taught by his father, a watch maker. As a watch maker, time was quite literally his father’s life, a life that Sigmund enjoyed immensely as a child – watching his father work, repairing clocks, time pieces, and various mechanical objects in his shop. His favorite, however, was watching and sometimes helping as his father created clockwork gadgets and toys. The intricate details that created the elaborate movements of dancing figures or walking animals gave Sigmund a love of creativity and the satisfaction of working with ones hands. Being on time was one way he tried to honor the memory of his father. He let the appreciation of time live on like an offspring of the mind.
The watch in his hand had belonged to his father and Sigmund was almost never without it. Silver, as opposed to the more popular gold. The outside cover was an engraving of a hawk in flight, with an ‘S’ overlaying it. “Shaw”, his father told him, “meant hawk-like” – no doubt a testament to a founding family member with a sharp nose. The symbol was a bit basic for a family crest, but meaningful to Sigmund nonetheless. This watch was one of the few things he had left to remember his father by. Of course, seeing his sister’s smile – their father’s smile – that also helped to keep the memories alive.
He lightly climbed the few steps to the front door of the building, ignoring the iron railings as he did so, and tucking a small package, a present for his niece, under his arm, he opened the door that led to the foyer of the building. Sigmund continued into the main floor, passing the stairs on his left, and walked down the hallway – hardwood with a burgundy carpet runner – to his sister’s door. With the slightest of hesitations, Sigmund knocked. He hoped Alexis answered, as her husband Jamison somehow intimidated him. It was always easier to see his sister first, receive a warm welcome, and to get the confidence that her hug provided, before facing his brother-in-law.
Jamison was not a bad man. In fact, quite the opposite, Sigmund was impressed with how good he was, how well he treated his sister and his niece. When Jamison met Alexis, Sigmund was with her. It was night and they were just leaving the theatre, having seen The H.M.S. Pinafore. Sigmund had walked to the street with the many others desperately trying to hail a cab in the cold wet weather of that evening. Alexis had stayed near the entrance to fend off the light drizzle. While she was standing alone, or as alone as one can be among a small crowd of people, Jamison approached her, introduced himself, and complimented her smile. Alexis blushed, smiled larger, and then looked away. But when she looked back at him there was no smile. It had been replaced with a serious, yet sad look. Jamison was a little taken aback by this but smiled kindly and calmly waited for an explanation.
Other theatre-goers continued to mill around them but were not relevant to this private moment. She lowered her gaze, not being able to look him in the face, unable to bear the inevitable disappointment he would show, and said, “I’m widowed. I have a young daughter at home.”
There was a pause. Alexis wanted to turn away, wanted the moment to be over and go home. What had been a charming night with her brother was turning into another dreadful evening of rejection. But to her great surprise, Jamison said, “I would like to meet her sometime.”
Alexis raised her eyes to his. People were crowding the sidewalk, moving all around them, but she couldn’t see anyone except Jamison. Her eyes glistened – Jamison recalled they sparkled – as she tried to keep her emotions in check. Barely able to speak, she managed a quiet, “I would like that too.”
Over the next several months, Jamison and Alexis spent much time together, falling in love, and finally marrying. Jamison’s family was not completely happy about his decision – marrying a woman who already had a child from a previous marriage, but given time, the kindness of Alexis, and the happiness of Jamison, they eventually welcomed her sincerely to the family. The two years since have been the happiest that Sigmund could every recall his sister being. Maybe Sigmund was intimidated because Jamison took as good care of his sister and niece as he ever did, and perhaps better.
Raising his fist to knock a second time, he halted as he heard rapidly approaching footsteps. When the door opened, his sister nearly flew out of it to give him a hug. “Sigmund! Right on time, as always.” She exclaimed
“Well, you know what father always said…”
Together they said, for an uncountable time, “‘Time is precious.’”
Alexis gave him another quick hug before guiding him into her living room. On the wall opposite the door was a fireplace, unused on this nice summer day, the mantle holding a vase with bright yellow flowers along with two picture frames. There was a brown couch, a matching brown wing chair, and two wooden chairs with floral upholstery, one of them occupied by Alexis’ husband. Jamison’s ears stuck out prominently on his narrow face but he had an overall intelligent look. He was similar in age to Sigmund but had the concentration lines of one who thought deeply on matters, a person who had a job that was more analytical than driving a cab. As Sigmund entered, Jamison smiled, stood up, and said, “Sigmund, welcome!”
Sigmund took two steps across the dark wood floor and shook hands with Jamison. “Always a pleasure to be here Jamison. You look well.”
“As do you.” Extending his hand to a chair, Jamison continued, “Please, have a seat. How was the ride today?”
“The ride was quite lovely. The warm weather has permeated even the coldest hearts and has won the citizens over to happiness. But I will have to decline your offer to sit for now, as you know I can’t delay another moment without visiting Sarah.” Sigmund gave a mock look of great concern. “Can’t have her be angry with me. Plus, I have a gift to deliver.”
Alexis put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Oh Sigmund, you are too kind. You will find her in the kitchen. She has been quite the helper today.” Looking at the package he held, she asked, “What did you bring her this time?”
“It is a surprise; you’ll see soon enough.” He smiled, turned towards the kitchen and said over his shoulder, “If you would excuse me for a moment, my niece awaits.”
The kitchen was warm and smelled of some kind of chicken dish.
Sigmund thought – his favorite. Sitting at the table was Sarah, his twelve year old niece. She had long, blonde hair, a heart shaped face like her mother, and a huge smile at seeing her uncle – what Sigmund considered The Impossible Smile.
“Uncle Sigmund!” she cried with delight but did not get up to hug him – she never got up to hug him, not for lack of desire, but for lack of ability. Since birth, her legs did not work. This condition made her constant joy, her happy smile seem impossible.
There were not many things that Sigmund truly hated, but he hated that his niece was in this condition. The unfairness of it all. But her ability to not let this ailment dominate her was nothing short of amazing. The Impossible Smile, the smile of his niece despite all her hardships. Sigmund didn’t talk of it with her, not wanting to draw attention to her condition, but he felt it deeply. Despite the pain he felt, he was proud of her and humbled by her attitude.
Sigmund walked over and kneeled next to her at the table so they could hug. Every embrace nearly brought tears to Sigmund’s eyes. This beautiful girl, so smart, so funny, so full of life, but limited with this physical ailment. What he wouldn’t give to help her. How many doctors had she visited, medicines tried – all to no avail. He loved her dearly, and long ago concluded that he would do anything to make her happy.
“I brought you something. But,” Sigmund continued teasingly, “I’m not sure you are old enough for it…”
“Uncle! I’m nearly thirteen years old. I’m old enough to know that you are going to give me the gift and that you are just teasing me.” She gave him a satisfied look, knowing that she had bested him.
Sigmund laughed, “My dear Sarah, you are correct. I will have to make a better case next time. It’s not fun teasing you if I can’t make you believe my lies.” Sigmund took the package from under his arm and placed it on the table in front of her.
With delicate fingers she lifted the wrapped present and turned it around examining its papered exterior closely with her large brown eyes. Sigmund loved her inquisitive mind, a trait that Jamison no doubt fostered. With the outside fully examined, she then hefted the package to get a feel for the weight. She finally declared, “Clearly a book of some sort.”
Sigmund nodded. She continued, “But the size and weight is on the small side. That eliminates Dickens, thank goodness.” She smiled and Sigmund laughed. She thought Dickens’ stories were brilliant but his writing style was not one that she enjoyed.
Sarah furrowed her brow for a moment and finally said, “There are too many possibilities, I give up.” And started to unwrap the present. Despite her previously analytical approach, she tore through the wrapping paper voraciously, tossing pieces of paper all around her. Once unwrapped, she held the book in hand and read the title out loud, “
The Hound of the Baskervilles
, by Arthur Conan Doyle! Oh Uncle! I love it!”