“Please stop hurting that potato,” sighed Rose. “I love you more than life, but I am tired of peeling the peels.”
St. Clair held it out to her, because the angle was wrong for lobbing it into the pot, and hooked an arm round her waist when she came near. Rose had savvy green eyes, deep-dimpled cheeks, and curves enough so an austerity skirt dazzled mortals; St. Clair got a garter-button under their thumb, the soft roundness of her thigh against their palm, before Rose snorted and stepped lightly on their foot.
“Never mind trying that before supper, Professor.” She shook free, not without smiling at them. “Shame you’re on duty tonight, you might have had your chance after washing-up.”
“Duty, did you mean larking about in the blackout with a bucket?”
“Nothing wrong with the fire watch.” Rose had said it before.
“I’m not as old a fool as I look! They ought to let me do something.”
“You fought in the last one!”
“Not on record.” St. Clair shook their head. “And it’s no use volunteering for France. Theo would only send me out to the Somme to look for his leg.”
“You will not, God forbid, volunteer for France. It’s enough danger here! What is it -- what is it really? St. Clair.”
“Some boys of Moshe’s acquaintance may have mentioned his stepfather was a conchie.”
“Then he could mention how many bobbies I’m still baking for, after you went nine rounds on Cable Street.” Rose shrugged. “Let me be glad you’re too old for a call-up. Last year I had two children; this year, five! How could I manage without you?
“You could wear your uniform, ziskeyt.”
“I will, if I’m put to it, die for the commonwealth, but I will not do it dressed as a third-rate manservant,” they scowled, though they sat at the scuffed-up table in a greying old shirt and argyle jumper under lecture-hall tweeds. Idle, their paring knife tapped the surface in time to Glenn Miller blaring upstairs. “And if I hear that foxtrot one more time!”
“Let them have it. We can’t give them much of a celebration. We can’t, we can’t give them their parents --” St. Clair’s wife, who had not flinched to see the East End bombed down around them, who knew how short the coal was running and how few coupons were on the book, suddenly drew her apron up and bit it to stifle a sob.
“Raisel, hush.” The kitchen was cramped enough St. Clair nearly reached her before her tears fell; they kissed the covered crown of her head, the wisps of her hair made rough by her scarf’s edge, her temple and her cheek.
“I worry so much,” she said, against St. Clair’s throat. “How we’ll keep them safe. What to tell them. All this time, never hearing a word! Sophie’s parents, Friedl and Peter’s parents, our Arie in Palestine…”
“Do you suppose the Seventh is out there building sand-castles? D’you think Nora will let that man anywhere near him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything! You think I have time to know what I think? You feel like an old fool,” she trailed off, wet-faced. She had never, to St. Clair, looked a moment older than she had when St. Clair lifted her wedding veil, but she stood just a little apart from them now and something of her seemed to flicker and dim.
St. Clair took both Rose’s hands, still damp from scrubbing, stained with beetroot; set one at their shoulder and clasped the other, and drew her in close at the hip. Music still drifted down through the study floor; Rose, taken all by surprise, let St. Clair lead. Slow-slow, quick-quick, neat as the Ritz, though the kitchen lino crackled beneath their feet.
“What are you doing? I don’t even know this one!”
“You do, you do.” St. Clair met her nervous laughter with a kiss. “If the kids are wearing the gramophone out, the old fools may as well dance.”