“I hate Egypt.” Sherbourne stood in his socks and braces, trying with a scrap of mechanic’s towel to coax the sand from his hair. He spat, and then looked up apologetically. Sand flies held no regard for tents. “I sodding loathe Egypt.”
“Well, never mind,” Fleming comforted. “We may be in Libya.”
Linton came in, grubby up to the cheekbones though the hot water he carried was clean. He balanced three mugs in his firing hand, and sipped from the nearest. “Lord, I miss tea.”
“What’s that, then?”
“Hot water with a hint of diesel fume.”
“I miss Harry,” said Fleming, though no one had asked. “It must be an age since --”
“Been a week. She sent pic’n’mix.” Sherbourne rummaged at the foot of his cot. “At least, it’s her writing on the parcel. Not your address -- Steeple Claydon, never heard of such a place.”
“Strictly speaking, is this my pic’n’mix?”
“Strictly speaking, I’ve eaten the rhubarb custards.”
“I’m going to skin you. I’m going to render you and clean my gun with the tallow. Was there a letter?”
Quick and cool, Linton stepped between them. He put one hand on Eleanor’s shoulder, one palm on Sherbourne’s chest; it was too hot a night to touch another human body, but he stood quite still, waiting, and for a moment there was no sound but the creak of all their boots on the sand.
“No letter,” he agreed. “You know they take their time on Cairo station.”
“You know I wouldn’t,” Sherbourne protested. “I never would. It’ll show up in February, and us still stuck sand-fighting.”
“Consult the wireless, will you, dear?” Linton cuffed Fleming’s shoulder, gently. “Spare us talking like this when we’ve all got plans for morning.”
“Who’s got plans?” She crouched to fiddle the dial, so she need not face him; it stuck, from the crack down the front of the case or from the sand, and the programme was slow to fade in.
“You may’ve missed it, but we’ve been invited to a battle. Fraser loads, I shoot, you drive?”
“And I’m for garnish, I guess,” Linton said. “All right then, Nora?”
“Yes. No. Fuck it. Just. I want to go home and see Harry.”
Sudden as light in a house at home, the Andrews sisters sang Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, oh! Sherbourne looked at Linton -- John Linton, in London; Johnny, never -- and his sun-scoured mouth shifted up in a tired smile; their fingertips just brushed, all caution, even in front of her, even now, and Eleanor ached.
She half-turned away from them, because that was what you did, when two people were in love and every space they owned was small, every bed belonged to the regiment, no moment had been truly private for years; she scuffed her boot on the packed-sand floor, so they might hear her leaving them, and ducked through the tent flap, out into the heat and the dark.
“Nora,” Sherbourne said after her, but he dared not call her aloud.
Eleanor sat with her back against a tent-rope, with her Enfield out beside her and her cover left behind indoors. Her handkerchief, too, and she had learned not to dry her eyes with dust-caked khaki drill; she looked up, instead, until her sight cleared a little.
There were so many stars. Maybe they saw the same ones at home; St. Clair would know what a tin chauffeur in the Mobile Farce did not. Harry would know.
Eleanor did not ask the photograph she kept in her right leg pocket. She only thought, briefly, sharply, of asking. Desert-rat crazy, she assessed. They call us that, now. With all my heart, Harry, I’m sorry I’ve lost my mind.
She drew her knee to her chest -- harder to do, now, week after month of crouching in a sardine tin starting to tell -- and dug out the photo, wrapped in Aertex from a torn-off shirtsleeve and a bit of an officer’s raincoat, to keep out the wet.
Second Officer Lady Harriet Fleming, the midnight blue of Wrens’ kit and the midnight black of her hair worn down by sand and time to one darkness, smiled up at Nora. She would have to ask for a new photograph, when she was in Cairo next and a letter might get through.
Harriet could get anything through -- a tin of fruit or a telegram, though the boys flinched at the sight of one. She had war work, something on the quiet; safe in the countryside, safe in England, safe. Eleanor thought the words until they stopped making sense, until her throat and her eyes stopped hurting.