The front room of the cottage was almost silent; a crackling fire in the hearth, pages turning, and soft breathing were the only sounds that could be heard. Suddenly, the peace was rudely shattered as the door was flung open. The woman who had been curled up in an armchair reading jumped violently, startled.
“Nell! Is something wrong?” she exclaimed, staring wide-eyed at her partner as she crossed the room with her long strides, pausing only to drop both their coats and a thick rug unceremoniously on the couch.
“No, nothing’s wrong. But put on your coat and come with me!” Taking Hilda’s book and placing it on the table, Nell grasped her hands and attempted to pull her up.
Still bemused, Hilda allowed Nell to pull her to her feet. Then, regaining her mental balance, she released herself and took a step away.
“I’m not putting on my coat until you tell me what’s happening and where we’re going,” she said firmly, folding her arms.
“Outside. It’s a surprise,” Nell replied, grinning.
“Outside? Now? Have you gone quite mad?” Hilda demanded.
“Why not? There aren't any blackout regulations to stop us now - ”
“I wasn’t talking about regulations, Nell. It’s the middle of winter! You are aware it’s below freezing tonight, aren’t you?”
“It’s not that bad, we’ve seen much colder weather in Austria.” With a dismissive flick of her hand, Nell waved away such minor details as sub-zero temperatures. “Come with me, Hilda. It’s worth it, I promise.”
A pause - and laughing ruefully, Hilda picked up her coat. “Very well, I’ll go with you. I can see I won’t have any peace until I do!”
Almost dancing with impatience, Nell hurried them both through the house, the rug bundled under one arm. Standing before the door, she suddenly turned to Hilda and said, “close your eyes.”
Hilda looked at her, eyebrows raised, and Nell recognized the expression that meant she was about to argue. Quickly, she added, “please, love. Trust me.”
With a sigh, Hilda nodded and closed her eyes. She heard the key turn and the door open; then Nell took her arm and led her gently out. She counted their steps, one, two, three… eighteen steps, a soft pressure on her left elbow to make her turn, and they stopped.
“May I open my eyes now?” she asked.
“Look up,” Nell instructed.
Hilda tilted her head back and opened her eyes, ready to lecture Nell if all this secrecy led simply to a stargazing expedition; but the reproach died on her lips unsaid as she took in the sight of the night sky. Shooting stars were blazing across it, so many she couldn’t keep track of them all.
“Oh, Nell,” she whispered, awed. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s the Ursid meteor shower. I thought it was going to be cloudy, that’s why I didn’t mention it earlier,” Nell replied softly. “When I saw it had cleared, I knew we had to come out at once.”
They stood in silence for a little while, admiring the spectacle before them. Then Nell shook out the rug and placed it round Hilda’s shoulders. “You were right about the cold, though,” she admitted. “I think I may have to fetch another rug!”
“We can share this one,” Hilda said, holding it open. Smiling, Nell pulled half of it around her. Wrapping their inner arms around each other’s waists, they linked their free hands together, holding the rug closed around them.
“I used to do this with my family when I was small,” Nell said, her voice so quiet Hilda could barely hear her. “Cherry and I would make wishes… I’d wish for magic powers; I quite fancied being able to turn people into toads!” They both laughed at that; then Nell went on, “And I remember Cherry once wishing, quite seriously, for my school to burn down so I’d have to stay at home. It took quite some time to convince her that that wasn’t a nice thing to wish for!”
“I used to wish on shooting stars when I was small, too,” Hilda recalled. “I remember a period when I constantly wished for an elder sister - before you laugh, I was the youngest in the family, and no-one had ever explained to me where babies came from!”
Nell smiled sadly to herself, remembering how she too had wished for a sister - and been granted that wish, for a little time. She said nothing, not wanting to spoil the moment, but Hilda seemed to sense her change of mood, the arm around Nell’s waist suddenly tightening and pulling her closer. Nell returned the gesture in kind, moved by the depth of the love that knew her so well.
“What would you wish for now?” Hilda asked after a time.
Nell tilted her head, considering. “How about a flask of hot coffee?” she said, a teasing smile playing on her lips.
“How very romantic,” Hilda replied, rolling her eyes, and her lover chuckled.
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like one.”
“I would,” she admitted, “but it seems a waste of a wish when we could just go back to the house and get one.”
“What would you wish for, then?” Nell countered, and Hilda fell silent, thinking.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. “the war is over, we’ve come through it safely, and now I’m here with you, watching shooting stars… and I can’t think of a single thing to wish for.”
Nell nodded. “That’s what I realised. We have each other; what else do I need?”
Hilda did not reply in words, feeling there was nothing she could add to that; instead, she simply pressed the hand clasped in her own, a wordless assurance that her feelings were the same. As they stood together, silently watching shooting stars streak across the sky, the same wish was in both their hearts: that they would always be this happy, this much in love.