Christmas Eve. Pauline shivered despite her luxurious coat – pre-war, and still good. The studio was draughty, and minimally heated. Still, her heart sang to be back in London for Christmas, just for this year. It was hardly the same without her sisters, but Garnie and Gum were there at least; the doctors were putting them up, and she would be picking up Winifred to go and visit them directly after the broadcast. It would be lovely to see her again, to catch up, to hear the Academy news. She smiled at the thought.
An assistant laid a hand on her arm. She nodded. 'The BBC is pleased to welcome,' the announcer was saying, 'Miss Pauline Fossil, recently returned from Hollywood, to read for us some of Shakespeare's best-loved verses.'
She hardly needed to read them; she knew them by heart:
'When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit, tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
'When all around the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose is red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl -
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit! Tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.'
(No icicles, no snow in London this year, though there had been a beauty of a pea-souper last night. 'This,' Garnie said, 'is the one thing I don't miss about England,' but Pauline had rather enjoyed it, being mildly scared in a pleasant kind of way, for as long as she could feel that they were not really lost; it was a kind of false danger within the real danger, and a little exciting.
Finding the way around in the blackout made things even worse than they had been in peacetime, of course, and in spite of herself she had been glad to hear Dr Smith's voice echoing out of the gloom. 'Pauline? Sylvia?')
It was only three o'clock in the afternoon when Pauline and Sylvia left the studio, and the visibility was considerably better; all the same, it was too cold to linger outside.They hurried in, up two flights of stairs to the doctors' flat, and it was like every Christmas had been when Pauline was small; inside there was a fire, and the Nine Lessons and Carols on the wireless, and good friends, and, defying rationing, American chocolates that Pauline had brought over herself. And once again the doctors had outdone themselves with a tree beautifully decorated, goodness knows how, glittering all over with tiny stars like silver lamps.
Christmas Eve. Petrova sang quietly to herself. 'Like silver lamps in a distant shrine, the stars are sparkling bright; The bells of the city of God ring out...' She could not hear herself over the roar of the Spitfire's engine, but that hardly mattered. Below her, she could see no towns at all, but the stars shone bravely. Somewhere down there was London; somewhere down there were Pauline and Garnie and Gum. She was worried a little for them; less for Posy and Nana, safe in America; for herself, not at all. It was, of course, possible that she would not return from this trip – for delivering fighters was almost as dangerous as flying them in combat – but she found that the risk hardly entered her consciousness. She was, purely and simply, happy, flying out in the clear air on Christmas night, above the clouds and below the stars.
Christmas Eve. Posy was bored. The room was too hot, her frock was uncomfortable, and she had been cornered by some appalling woman who was convinced that her brat of a daughter was the next Anna Pavlova. Posy hated parties; to her mind they were an annoying distraction from the more important matter of dancing, and at this one there was no one she liked at all. She would, she knew, have to be polite to certain patrons, but perhaps then she could sneak home and wait up until midnight with the gramophone and Petrova's last letter.
Being polite did not come naturally to Posy; the combination of brutal honesty and a wicked sense of humour usually proved too much for her fragile self-restraint. Best not to touch the cocktails. She thought longingly of hot spiced ginger drinks and Christmas in London. Was it already Christmas Day on the other side of the Atlantic? She could never remember the time difference. And would there still be carol singers in the blackout?
'Don't you agree, Miss Fossil?' the woman was asking. Posy had no idea what she was meant to be agreeing, and looked around helplessly.
Help came from somewhere behind her left shoulder. 'Darling, you're flagging!' Gus, her agent swept her up and away from the pushy mother.
'Am I misbehaving, Gus?' she asked when they had reached a safe distance. She had, she knew, the unfortunate woman's mannerisms down a tee, and he couldn't help laughing. Posy liked Gus a lot.
'You know you are, my dear. Do I get the feeling you'd rather be somewhere else?'
'Dancing,' Posy said. 'Failing that, at home, with a large mug of cocoa.'
'I can certainly arrange the latter,' Gus said. 'This is America: land of the free, home of the brave. You can have whatever you like. Even cocoa. Shall I find you a taxi?'
Gus disappeared; Posy talked for a couple of minutes to a highly-thought-of avant-garde composer, who happily wanted to talk about neither avant-garde music (which would have been interesting, but long-winded) nor the war (about which Posy suspected that she disagreed with most of the other guests), but rather chose to recall the winters of his youth and compared them with hers – a cheerful diversion until Gus came to collect her.
Later, wrapped in her dressing gown, drinking cocoa with Nana, she dug out not only Petrova's latest, unread, letter, but all of her sisters' correspondence from the past three months. Pauline's gossipy letters, brimming over with amusement and kindness, Petrova's more technical accounts of aeroplanes and flights – heavily censored, of course, but still hinting at magical journeys. Dear Posy. Love from Pauline. Love from Petrova. Christmas was not Christmas without the girls, of course, but here, with Nana, a warm fire, and the letters, and little sparkling lights reflected in the silvery steel table, it was not a bad imitation. 'Merry Christmas, Nana,' she said, and smiled.
Dr Jakes' little brass clock struck midnight. 'Merry Christmas,' she said, and they yawned, and laughed, and said 'Merry Christmas', all of them, Dr Smith and Dr Jakes, and Pauline and Garnie and Gum. And, excepting the fact that Petrova, Posy and Nana were missing, it was almost as it should be.
Christmas morning. The sky was becoming paler. Far away in the east a bright speck appeared. Petrova caught her breath. She knew what it was – a plane, too distant to tell whether it was friend or foe, whose underside was catching the light of the yet unrisen sun, a man-made morning star. It would be best, of course, to keep well out of its way, but for about half a minute she could afford to fix her eyes upon it, and wonder at its beauty. Softly, she sang, 'The bells of the city of God ring out, for the son of Mary is born tonight. The gloom is past, and the morn at last is coming with orient light.'