“You sure you don’t mind, sir?”
A neatly-dressed black mother was standing on the sidewalk beside Ciaran’s front feet as her two boys climbed across his head. Rather adorably, his eyes had crossed as he looked up and tried to spot the youngsters, but he straightened his gaze and carefully swung his head towards her so that he could reply.
“No problem at all, ma’am,” he replied, sounding quite gallant.
Then one of the boys stepped on his eyeball – which, like the rest of him, was bulletproof and therefore suffered nothing from the soft sole of the shoe, “Careful, that’s my eyeball!”
“Sorry mister!” the boy replied, but rightly wasn’t dissuaded.
Kids seemed to love dragons, and as an expert on that particular subject, Stephanie Shylock left her perch on the stairs to stand beside the mother, “When I was three, I rode around on the head of a dragon. Her name is Sass – she’s his mom.”
Clearly not having expected to be approached by any of the foreign whites on the stairs, the mother stepped aside in surprise, and her gaze dropped, “I’m sorry, ma’am. Should we leave?”
A shot of tension raced through Stephanie with the deferential words, and she clamped her jaw for a second to avoid reacting with too much righteousness. It was wrong that people could feel so deferential to invaders in their neighborhood, but lecturing a woman who was trying to raise her sons in the Jim Crow south would be nothing short of impertinent.
“I know it’s probably impossible to say this in a way you’ll believe, but where we’re from, you don’t have to treat us differently. Or him, for that matter,” Stephanie nodded in Ciaran’s direction, just before he called out a warning to his young playmates and raised his head so they could slide down his neck and onto his back. Narrowing her eyes, the Lieutenant added, “Well, you do have to treat him a little differently. Because he’s huge and from outer space.”
“And I’m only five years old,” Ciaran added helpfully, which cut through anything Stephanie was trying to say and forced the mother’s eyes wide.
“You’re… five?” her question was natural, and he nodded – stymieing her sons’ attempt to re-climb his head.
“I’m eleven,” one of them declared.
“I’m nine!” added the other.
Neither of them seemed quite so shocked as their mother at the age difference, but to be helpful, Nancy Wake called from the stairs, “I don’t know if your mother would want you horsing around with older boys, Ciaran. They could get you into trouble.”
“Don’t tell,” he replied, and the ease of the words… the ease of everything about the Jimmystown delegation… compelled the boys’ mother to look from the dragon to the strangers and back again.
“I’m sure the place you’re from is special, ma’am,” she addressed herself to Stephanie, though it took a few seconds for the Lieutenant to realize the comment was meant for her. No eye contact – no confidence behind the words.
It set her teeth on edge, as surely as seeing the accusatory stares from the people of Hong Kong once had. Could there not be a civilized world where people simply saw each other as people? The cackling laugh of the boys now hanging off Ciaran’s face as he lowered them to the ground suggested that there could be… Stephanie just had a profound suspicion that humans couldn’t be in charge of such a place.
But that lofty thinking had no bearing on the present situation.
Turning back towards the stairs, Stephanie caught a smile from Mike Strong, who was clearly delighted to see children – including Ciaran – playing in the street. Beside him, Elspeth was equally glowing in her appreciation, as was Nancy Wake.
Behind them all, sitting on the top step and silently looking at the black-shrouded statue, Alex barely appeared to exist in the world. Stephanie studied her best friend for a few seconds, half-hoping that she would meet the American’s gaze…
Not this time.
Leaving the mother and her boys to Ciaran’s care – and deciding it was best to get out of the way because more playmates and parents were drifting closer to the young dragon – the Lieutenant resumed her seat on the steps and addressed the rest of the delegation: “Think he’ll be back with food soon?”
Elspeth needed no prompting, “I hope so. If not I’m going to go over there myself, and cause a racial incident by sitting at a table and asking to be fed.”
She was in good spirits, but even that attempt at a joke wasn’t able to ease the strain of the circumstances. Cappy had gone in search of Ma Sutton’s famous fried chicken, with orders to retrieve enough to feed a platoon (so Elspeth and Alex both could eat their share and still leave some for the rest of the group). But the fact that he had to go, because he was black, and bring the food out of the restaurant so that it could be consumed by whites… well, was there really any point to again commenting on how backward these rules were?
“Still better than having to go eat with Constance, though. Her mother seems like such a dear,” Wake interjected with that observation, and Elspeth had to nod at her officer’s insight.
For while these five and Ciaran could at least spend their evening amongst normal, sensible people, Lady Constance Cormack had to dine in her mother’s mansion, with the Republican Presidential Nominee.