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Promise Lightens a Family's Sad Parting

THE sun burrowed through the closed shutters in Joe's room, making the dust particles jitter. Joe sighed. He hadn't opened the windows yet in protest at the fine weather, at such odds with his mood. He wasn't out of bed, even though Rachel had been up for hours. His stomach felt tight with unpleasant anticipation as he watched Rachel hopping on the spot with barely contained energy, trying to catch the golden dust, her cheeks glowing with sweaty exertion. He watched her intensely, imprinting her images in his mind. For today was to be his last day with his daughter.

''Come on, Rabbit,'' he said gently. ''It's time I got up, we have a lot to do.'' His voice sounded brittle, but Rachel didn't seem to notice. She plodded happily behind him into her room.

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He knew he should pack her things, as his wife, Juliette, would be calling for her in a few hours. He knew he should talk to Rachel about the next few months, how he would write and phone; how he would always be her daddy. But the words wouldn't come, and tears threatened to choke them off and ruin this last day.

''Shall we pack your prettiest things to take with Maman?'' he asked, instead. She bobbed her head enthusiastically.

He placed a large, battered suitcase on the bed and watched her struggle to unzip it. As he laid the clothes on the bed, she declared each one to be her favorite and asked him if she looked pretty in it (''C'est joli?''). He would look at her solemnly, pretending to consider. And she would giggle, unable to bear the suspense until he declared that she was indeed ''jolie,'' and she swelled with pride, ran to him, and hugged his legs.

After the dresses, he packed slippers, cardigans, jeans, worn socks, and sensible undershirts. Last of all came the pajamas. He lingered over these. They were the most painful, as they evoked the best memories -- of reading to her at bedtime, while she rubbed her eyes and struggled to stay awake, exasperating him with irrelevant interruptions (''Does the wolf have paws, Daddy?'') in the vain hope that it would prolong the story -- such sweet memories caught up in a little pair of frayed pajamas. Joe clung to them sentimentally and toyed with the idea of keeping them. But practicality won, and the pajamas were laid over the rest.

When they were done, Rachel cooperated by sitting on the bulging bag, while Joe battled, halfheartedly, with the zipper. The flat felt oppressively empty. So they left for an errand at the corner shop, hand in hand -- her hand in his, then his in hers, then hers in his again in playful alternation, swinging their arms gaily.

As he paid for their purchases, Joe was struck by the ordinariness of what they were doing: shopping like any other day. And how everyone greeted them as usual. No special kindness, no looks of sympathy.

Next, they stopped at the park to watch the swans glide by, serene, unflappable, timeless. Joe thought sadly of happier times when he had to come to this spot. On his first date with Juliette. She had been an au pair from France, spending a year in Berkshire to learn English.

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After they married and she became pregnant, they continued to walk hand in hand along the river. He didn't remember when their love had stopped -- if indeed it had. But he saw that Juliette was unhappy, and that he was powerless to change it. He had selfishly ignored the warning signs. He hadn't listened to her doubts. Now his understanding came too late.

The small, one-sided efforts, the daily problems of living in a strange culture and speaking a foreign language finally became an unendurable burden for her.

What at first Juliette had found enchanting about England now stifled her. The easy familiarity among strangers and neighbors, the ordinariness of their life together, now repelled her.

Hoping it was temporary homesickness, Joe had agreed to and even encouraged her to go back to France for a long holiday -- hoping that she would get over it. But she hadn't, and now she was coming to take away their daughter, too. There was no mention of divorce; it was too soon to tell. They both acted as if it were a temporary setback, but he had no clue how permanent it would be.

He let himself wonder what it would be like living in France. It would be wonderful for Rachel, of course. She was already bilingual. And in Grenoble she would live in the countryside and learn to ski. He was sure she would be happy there. But what about him? He barely knew a word of French. He had always been too lazy to learn. (He realized now that this had been a mistake.) And he wasn't sure how he would make a living there, or whether he would fit in. But he was kidding himself. He knew he would have willingly jumped on a plane, if only Juliette had asked him to. But she hadn't.

Rachel was skipping ahead of him, singing a loud monotone tune she had just made up. When she reached the swings, she called for him to hurry up, until he was behind her, pushing her faster, then slower, on the swings.

All too soon, the morning ended. Tired and hungry, she leaned against him, whining until he put her on his shoulders and began to walk toward home. As they rounded the corner, he saw that Juliette was already there. She stood soaking up the sun, her back to the front door.

He set Rachel down slowly, and watched with a heavy heart as she let out a whoop and ran into her mother's arms, all tiredness temporarily forgotten. He felt cheated. He had wanted more time, more privacy to say goodbye. Despite himself, he still felt a thrill when he looked at Juliette. She still looked good, and he felt stupidly glad to see her. But although her mouth smiled, her eyes had warmth only for Rachel.

Over the next half-hour, he busied himself with practical arrangements -- calling a cab, preparing sandwiches for the journey -- as Rachel and Juliette stood by and watched. Finally, it was time to go. Joe and Juliette exchanged sad looks. They put on their bravest faces, had a group hug, and assured Rachel that she would see her daddy again soon.

Joe kissed Rachel's head and promised to phone her that evening. '' bientot, ma cherie,'' he murmured. He noted with satisfaction the surprise on Juliette's face. It was the first time he had spoken French in her presence.

''I thought I'd better try to pick up the lingo,'' he said modestly. ''I've just started lessons.'' The hope hung in the air, heavy but unspoken. Juliette smiled. And butterflies fluttered in his stomach.

It was Juliette who broke the silence, promising to Rachel that daddy would come and stay with them at half-term. He wasn't sure how to react, until her eyes met his questioningly, and he knew that she was really asking.

He smiled his assent and felt the butterflies burst into golden buttercups, warming him inside. It wasn't as good as having them both home. But it was a start. It was something to work on.

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