Ursula is watching the BBC. The Jordanians opened fire on Tel Aviv that morning, the reporter says, and now they are bombing Jerusalem. Benjamin Cole is a member of the Israeli parliament now; he had fought in the Jewish Brigade at the end of World War II and then had joined the Stern Gang to fight for the formation of Israel.
In moving directly from World War II to another major global conflict (the Six-Day War), Atkinson again emphasizes how humans have a difficult time learning from previous mistakes in continuing to wage violent conflict on each other.
Ursula and Benjamin had met up briefly for a drink during the war, but it had been awkward. She was relatively indifferent to him, but he was extremely interested in her and suggested they “go somewhere.” She had told him to “catch her around next time.” When she had recounted this tale to Millie later, Millie said she should have “seized the day,” though Ursula said that that seemed to be everyone’s excuse for bad behavior.
Although Atkinson doesn’t give the exact point in the war in which Ursula and Benjamin met for a drink, it seems to represent a change in Ursula, who no longer feels pressed to “seize the day,” unlike her feelings during her affair with Fred Smith. Ursula’s last comment to Benjamin also proves to be ironic, as he does in fact pursue her directly in Ursula’s next life.
Ursula has just returned from her retirement party, which consisted of drinks at a pub. Her secretary had thanked her for paving the way for women in senior positions in the civil service. Ursula had thought that she wasn’t that senior—she still wasn’t in charge, like the Maurices of the world. Maurice had recently been knighted.
The difference between Ursula and Maurice’s career path revives Atkinson’s commentary on gender roles and expectations. Because women have been thought of as wives and mothers for so long, it is difficult for them to rise up to the same positions as men. Ursula is no less intelligent or dedicated than Maurice, but he is the one in the leadership position.
Ursula’s colleagues had gifted her with a set of tickets to a performance of Beethoven’s Choral. She thinks that Miss Woolf would have loved attending it, but she was killed in 1944. At Miss Woolf’s funeral, Ursula had wondered who would remember the names of the dead—Miss Woolf, Emil, Renee, Fred Smith. Ursula had already forgotten so many names, so many young lives lost. Ursula had also thought of Teddy.
Again, Ursula dwells on not only the violent deaths of so many people that have been brought about by the war, but also the fact that those deaths mean that so many people are cruelly deprived of the possibilities that life might have afforded them in the future.
Ursula feels old, though Pamela insists that she’s not old yet—she’s not even sixty. Once Pamela’s children had grown, Pamela had become a woman who did good works, eventually becoming a chief magistrate. Harold had taken over Dr. Fellowes’s old practice. Ursula thinks that she would take Sarah to the concert with her—the daughter that Pamela had always wanted, born in 1949. For Ursula, Sarah fills a hole in her heart left by Teddy’s loss.
The life that Pamela achieves perhaps best represents a compromise between Sylvie’s traditional tastes and Izzie’s tendency towards being a “modern woman.” Pamela finds a way to be both a mother and wife, as well as a working woman, representing the degree of progress that has allowed women to do both of these things.
Ursula realizes now that she wishes she had a child of her own. She had never been a mother or wife, and it is only now that she cannot be, that she realizes what she has missed out on. Pamela’s life would live on in her descendants, but Ursula’s life would simply end.
Even though Ursula has lives that repeat again and again, the difference between this experience and having children is that children represent a legacy that extends into the future.
A few weeks later, Ursula is having lunch with Pamela’s first-born son, Nigel, who is a history tutor. Ursula argues that if Hitler had died before he became Chancellor, the Holocaust would not have happened, and the Jews might not have tried to form Israel, “and the whole cultural face of Europe would be different.” Additionally, the Iron Curtain would not have fallen, Russia would not have taken over Eastern Europe and America might not have recovered so quickly from the Depression. But, she says, “perhaps Goering or Himmler would have stepped in. And everything would have happened in just the same way.”
Ursula’s conversation with Nigel echoes the earlier conversation she has with Ralph, when he asks her if she would kill Hitler as a baby. When Ursula eventually tries to carry out this scenario (killing Hitler before he becomes Chancellor), Atkinson does not write the ramifications of her action because Ursula dies immediately afterward. Thus, the course of history without Hitler remains ambiguous, and therefore Atkinson’s argument about fate is left open-ended as well.
Ursula walks back from lunch through a park, remarking at how young people these days have so much enthusiasm and hope for the future. She sits down on a bench and falls asleep. She is transported—to a meadow, to a garden, to a field covered in snow. Snow begins to fall around her, until light pierces through a curtain and she is lifted up. Sylvie says, “I shall call her Ursula.” Hugh remarks that he likes the name, and responds, “Welcome, little bear.”
This is the first time in which Ursula is “reborn” without explicitly dying, leaving open the possibility that the different variations of her life may in fact simply be in her head, rather than something that happens in reality (something that Dr. Kellet had theorized). Like her discussion with Nigel, these variations become thought experiments of what might have happened in her life if certain circumstances had changed.