“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.”
Ziskeyt is Yiddish for 'sweetie,' more or less.
“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.
Steeple Claydon is a small place about 20 minutes outside of a manor in Milton Keynes. It has a steeple.
The Mobile Farce was actually what the tank cavalry called themselves. You can't get funnier than actual people in wartime, so I didn't try.
Chapter 3: Somewhere in Buckinghamshire, December 1940
There were boots sounding the floorboards by Harriet’s bed. Familiar, not frightening; someone fumbling not to wake her. She turned, to see the window or the clock, and the bedsprings dipped under a weight Harriet knew by heart.
“Nora,” she whispered, half rising. “It’s the middle --”
Eleanor’s arms were around her, then, holding on close and fierce. It was too dark, until Harriet bumped the night-light, to see her clearly; but the shape and weight of her, the scent of clean sweat and gun oil overlaid with the faint dust of drill-dress cloth, were all Nora’s, and her voice, rough and muffled, was almost lost beside Harriet’s ear.
“I’m dreaming. You’re not, you can’t be real.”
She took Harriet’s ink-marked hand in her callused one, and kissed her knuckles; put the pad of Harriet’s thumb to her mouth, and bit.
“Ow,” Harriet said; Eleanor said “Ink!” and pulled a face no artillery captain would make in a dream.
“Husband, I thought. Or wife, or something.” Her voice was hoarse almost to breaking, but there was a laugh in it; the laugh faded to a prayer, a promise, breathed over Harriet’s forehead in the moment before a kiss. Quick, cautious brushes of Eleanor’s lips at first, landing across her cheekbone, pressed to her earlobe when Eleanor nuzzled at Harriet’s hair. Then Harriet course-corrected her, two fingers along Nora’s jawline in the dark, and they kissed for the first time in a year.
It was a mess, half-biting and frantic and everything. Harriet talked -- Harriet always did talk, when Eleanor had her like this, nonsense on the current of their breathing -- Eleanor Charlotte, and love you, and oh, my God. Nora answered her with wordless, raw-voiced tenderness, her hands and her mouth always seeking, never still. Harriet was not crying, would not cry.
Sand lay in the creases of Eleanor’s sleeves, when Harriet held to them; every stripe and leaf hung ragged, every buckle and medal cold. She must have come straight from the airfield to Harriet’s billet; her gloves and her cover were missing, and she was paper-pale. Harriet leant into her, to feel the rise and fall of her chest, to steady with her own strength the slight shaking in Eleanor’s shoulders.
“Happy Christmas. God, I dreamed of having you home.”
“Harry,” she said, and “I’m sorry,” low and earnest as if their time apart was her fault, and Harriet could not bear it.
She shoved at khaki and combat webbing, just to run a palm or a fingertip over Eleanor’s skin, and seemed never to succeed; Eleanor pushed back, as she never had, until Harriet was pinned under her weight. She tore and pulled at every threadbare thing Harriet wore, until buttons scattered like pearls in the sheets and Harriet nearly sobbed. Please, closer, please. The gentlest touch would have run fire through her veins, after so long, and Eleanor was not gentle now. She knew where to bite and where to comfort, where to stroke and where to bruise; she was quiet and demanding and precise. She had Harriet wrecked without saying a word, without touching the skin she had exposed; then her hand came down at last on Harriet’s bare hip, and Harriet --
Harry yelped. “Dearest, you’re freezing.”
She sat back, a little, and offered a rueful grin. “Bloody cold here at night, love.”
Eleanor came down close, again, and followed Harriet’s pulse from throat to clavicle with kisses. Her fingers, driven through Harriet’s hair, grew warm, but the tip of her nose was a shock still: Harriet huffed and laughed and nudged her up, away.
Something dropped forward from her half-buttoned shirt, so close in the dim light that Harriet had to blink. Eleanor’s field tags -- one field tag, and a frayed-off cord; the red disc had been cut.
“Nora!” She shouted to carry across a desert, a sea, and held on hard. Cloth and skin and wind-rough hair slid through Harriet’s fingers like sand. Hold me fast and fear me not, one of Eleanor’s endless songs, and she would, she did, she tried; but the light was silver at the frost-laced window, and Harriet was waking just the same.
The room’s sun and shadows were latticed by splinter tape, and Hanukkah Sameach had been swirled over the glass in dish-soap and rough Hebrew, but it was still the brightest place in the narrow house, and the warmest. In an hour the study would be full of sound: Moshe revising aloud, Friedl singing with the gramophone, Peter and Sophie in a quarrel and Lily querulous at being out of it. The Meccano sets were bent and sticky, the pack of cards was short two kings and no minor person was allowed under St. Clair’s desk, all worth more noise; but just for now it was silent. St. Clair closed the door into stillness, and felt a moment’s utter gratitude to be alone.
Curled in a corner of the oldest sofa, Rose was asleep.
There was no question of waking her -- when else will she sleep, and where, the public shelter? St. Clair took off their jacket and set it round her shoulders, so the collar might warm the nape of Rose’s neck where her scarf left it bare. They looked down at her just a moment, because she was striking even with a year’s shadows under her eyes, guileless and sweet in sleep as she could not be, awake; and then they meant to back away.
“Hello, lovely.” She stretched, a little, and shivered when St. Clair’s jacket slipped aside. “What’s wanting?”
“St. Clair.” Rose looked heavenward, infinitely tested, but went into their arms despite the banter. “Oh! Don’t, I’ll squash you.”
“I’m not a lemon, thank you.”
“Gosh, though, a lemon might be nice!” She laughed,half-settled in their lap, though she never quite relaxed when her weight rested on St. Clair. It was the one matter for which they would have pitched her late, first fellow off a handy bridge -- fine father, fine provider, raised no hand to her, absolute chancrous dimwit -- but things were improving; Rose put her head back on their shoulder, now, and sighed. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I ought never have sat down for a second. Ten things I meant to queue for, and I fall asleep!”
“What ten things? We have children to do the queueing. We’ve borrowed more, if you recall.”
“Have we? Is that what’s the matter with the washing?” She frowned up at them. “Can’t send them to the shops for their own gifts, though -- such ones as we’ll manage. I know, I know there’s money. There’s nothing for it to buy!”
“I thought a trouser suit for Moshe, for the synagogue. He’s too young, but it’s only for shul,” St. Clair reasoned. “Maybe you have it all right, in the gallery, but the men’s bit ain’t half cold.”
“You’ll spoil him.You’ve ordered it, haven’t you?”
“So long as it’s black -- please tell me it’s a nice sensible black?”
“I think Lily would take a jigsaw of the blackout, if the box had all the pieces in,” St. Clair ignored her. “And Sophie’s out of face powder; Peter wants some grim book about fighter planes. Friedl ought to have something new for the gramophone -- please -- and enough chocolate creams for the lot of them. Sorted!”
“For this, you have Doctor in your name,” Rose scoffed, not at all displeased.
“What would you like?”
“Seems silly to have Hanukkah in the blackout. And you needn’t -- you know it’s just for the children.”
“Just the same,” St. Clair insisted, and at last she sighed.
“I would like forty-five minutes alone with you, in our bed, and I would like to spend them incapable of thought.”
“Hm. Not an hour?”
“Gevalt, they’ll empty the pantry in an hour. They’ll dig for UXB in the allotment.” She shook her head, and when St. Clair ran a hand under her cardigan she seemed not to mind. “What about you?”
“Your hair, down.”
Rose only lifted an eyebrow.
“What? I’ve not seen your hair since September.”
She swatted St. Clair away a moment, and then she untied her scarf. “Just ask. That’s yours already.”
Rose’s hair was bright-gold as old angels and far too long for fashion, all in loose curls when St. Clair stroked through it; she covered it, always, unless the two of them were alone, and alone was not a word for a war. Because I’m married, she’d said to them, just when she had come out of black clothes for their wedding, and Yes, but you’re married to an utter heathen had never budged her, but here and now St. Clair had everything they wished and Rose was kissing them, hard.
They would have been content just with this -- Rose at rest with them, a little warmth and quiet, time enough to kiss like teenagers on the sofa. But Rose took hold of their wrist, quick as anything, and bent at a strange slant: to read their watch-face, St. Clair realized.
“Time,” she said, “How much time before…?”
Into the veil of her hair they murmured, “Twenty minutes.” Suddenly she was no longer pressed against them; she moved and for once seemed not to doubt her own grace. Her fingers ran across St. Clair’s trousered knees, nudging a little, tugging a bit, and it took them a bewildered, blinking moment to keep up.
Rose knelt on the floor in front of them. She fit easily there, as if such things happened every day; her hands rested, strong and safe, on St. Clair’s upper thighs. She might have taken anything from them, without asking. She looked straight up at them and asked.
Hanukkah and Christmas really did intersect in 1940.
“Would you turn this tractor,” Sherbourne said, acid as the sweat stinging all their eyes, “so I stand a chance of hitting something at which I shoot?”
“Commander, thump the gunner!”
“Busy! Make the loader thump him.”
“Got no loader,” Eleanor answered, the louder to make it hurt less.
“Gunny can thump himself, then. There’s a war on!”
The gunner was ignoring them both, and singing. “I want high explo-sives, I want high ex-plo-sives! Bring ‘em to me by the next convoy. I want high explosives, I want high ex-plo-sives! That’s the thing I really should enjoy.”
“Some lads in the Fifth fitted their Tilly up for the six-pound gun. You think if I do ours for him, he’d stop singing? All right, Band Wagon!”
“I think it gives him courage,” Eleanor said, wincing. Sherbourne had not run out of words, and he was rhyming them as he emptied his clips; but they were mostly unfit for company. “His sister can stay in tune, I want you to know.”
“Shit, shit mother of all hells right stick, now please, Nora.” Linton dropped down into cover, bumping Sherbourne, and Sherry caught his forehead on the periscope’s edge and splashed them all three with blood; Eleanor’s hand followed the order, and the rest of her shifted round to look.
There was smoke filtering in, from whatever they had not hit -- whatever John had seen that she had not -- and the air tasted more metallic than it ought, but their tracks were still moving and no one was dead. The commander’s hatch was open to a bright, flat, hot sky.
“They’re not even mining the desert fair and square any more,” complained Sherbourne. “They’re leaving ordnance like Christmas parcels.”
“Rotten surprise, a parcel like that.” She laughed, as much as she dared to laugh with Sherry bleeding above her in the gunner’s basket, but Commander Linton seemed not to want the sound. He was rigid in the shoulders; his teeth showed and his hands were shaking.
“I barely saw it in time. Might never’ve seen it, ‘cept the light was on our side. I’m sorry, chaps, I’m sorry --”
“You did see it,” Sherbourne cut him off. “We swerved, and you shot ten holes in it, and it went boom. We can all go back to having a war now. John. It’s all right.”
Linton turned to Eleanor, and whistled. “It was pretty maneuvering. You ought to drive the Grand Prix for England, you lucky fuck.”
“You kiss your gunner with that mouth!”
“Well. Not when he looks like that.”
Sherbourne’s hair was soaked and stuck across his forehead with blood; he was ash pale down to his stubble and his dark eyes were stricken wide.
“Oh, go on,” said Nora. “I’ll turn my back.”
“You’re not funny,” he sputtered. “What if you'd under-steered? Harry would have killed me!”
Everything on earth was funny, after the close call they had had. Fumes and heat and a hundred small hurts made them all dizzy fools; they were still moving forward in as level a line as a tank could run, because Eleanor could drive the Matilda in her dreams, but Sherbourne’s legs dangled down from the turret like a schoolboy’s, and Commander Linton had not returned to his lookout.
The kiss saved them, she thought -- she must have thought it a hundred thousand times, after. In the half heartbeat between the thump of the anti-tank shell and the screaming shear of the turret armor as it gave way, their heads were down; the blast took their balance, sending them down on top of Eleanor, but gunner and commander kept their limbs.
“Get off!” She had not signed up, this hitch, to drive anything on fire; and maybe Linton was shrapnel-stunned and Sherry bleeding to buggery, but Eleanor was not going to suffocate under them. She was pinned so close to the ground, she felt it shaking. With the percussion came heat, even through the Matilda’s armor, and it was growing inconvenient to breathe. “I won’t die in a sardine-tin, I won’t die without seeing my wife, get off and get out!”
Sherbourne's filk of 'I Wanna Banana' is not strictly in period, as that song came out in 1942.
A Tilly is short for a Matilda, e.g. an Infantry Tank Mark II. There were many aftermarket alterations made to these in pursuit of a better boom.
“Mameh, Tateleh! Aunt Harriet’s here!”
Moshe’s voice, piping clear even through closed doors, sent Rose to the sofa’s far corner quickly as a shove.
“Lady Harry? Did she write?”
“If she had, I’d be busy -- and not with you!” She reached to unmuddle St. Clair’s necktie, her touch drawing the sting from her words. “Put yourself together! Don’t go out looking like Ivor Novello with a plait!”
“Ivor Novello, at my age?” St. Clair grinned. “You think so?”
Rose’s hands flew in her hair, twisting and tucking, and she blushed when her eye caught St. Clair’s. “Go away. Get the door. Be pretty somewhere else.”
St. Clair put their hands in their trouser pockets and gave a full turn, still grinning back at her across the study threshold. The front hall was stuffed with seven souls’ gas-mask cases and overshoes and umbrellas, winter-dim even before they’d nailed up the blackout, and always damp, but Moshe had not shown Harriet into the parlour or, thank small gods, the study. He was still at her elbow, polite, a little pale, and looked up at St. Clair wide-eyed.
“Run downstairs, meyn likhtel, and put the kettle on.”
Harriet said nothing. She looked cold and crumpled, as anyone might from traveling these days; her officer’s hat was only just over on one side, her satchel half open, her tie entirely gone.
There was an envelope sticking up from her coat pocket, bent as if she had taken it out and replaced it a dozen times in the train to London. It had torn across the corner, but in the awful light Priority could still be read.
“Which one of them,” St. Clair managed, not even lifting it to a question.
The tea leaves had had a third steeping before Harriet found her voice. “I’m sorry to crowd in on you, Lady Lowborough.”
Rose, who answered to Missus St. Clair in shul, queues, and shelter, caught herself on her darning needle; the three refugee children looked up as if electric current had run round the room. The waterspout toe of FitzGeorge, Lord Lowborough’s boot nudged hard at Harriet’s ankle.
“Don’t fuss,” said Rose. “That you should be alone on your leave, at this season!” She made no mention, in front of the family, what sort of leave it might be.
“Have my and Arie’s room, Aunt Harriet. For as long as the leave is.” Moshe shrugged. He could not, if Harriet recalled, be more than ten; not in trousers yet. He was serious and steady as a young soldier.
The last time they had been together -- all of them -- was in this room, Harriet remembered: two years ago, nearly, to see St. Clair’s elder stepson off to Palestine. A lad of only sixteen, principal heir to the tag-end of a Raj fortune, wanted most to cross half the earth and break his back in the desert; but no one, that night, had cried.
She dared not cry now, in the FitzGeorges’ cluttered parlour, though the afternoon was fading down bruise-colored and cold. Out of politeness, no one had even switched on the BBC in the next room; the five children shuffled their feet on the carpet, or whispered, and never mentioned hunger or boredom.
“Moshe, dear, take my pass and take this; see what can be got in time for tea.” Harriet handed him her ration book, folded over to the sugar coupons; his mouth dropped open wide as his eyes. “If they won’t register me on a three-day hitch, think of a half-pound of sugar and gin up some tears. I find that’s effective.”
“Tateleh, may I take it?”
“He’ll clean you out for the week, Lady Harry.”
“Certainly he may, and the tea ration too. One ought to indulge one’s nephews.Go on.”
“Has not leave to wear plain clothes,” Moshe read from the typed pass, and whistled. “I never knew the army were just as hard on girls.”
St. Clair stifled a sharp cough behind their hand, and not for the first time Harriet wondered what manner of person in girl’s clothes they had been, before the Great War. She knew they had been into France and out of it, though they must have been shockingly young, and their brother -- quite high up now in the Ministry of War -- had come home a limb lacking, a bit off his plumb, and made over his duties to St. Clair, who was reputed to be quite a bit off theirs.
They seemed steady enough, balanced on the arm of their wife’s chair beside Harriet’s, precise and aloof as a sharp-suited cat. St. Clair had the pale patrician sort of face Harriet had seen above club collars at garden parties all her life, and everything below the collar was tailored to the last inch, so that one was never certain, exactly. Harriet was dead sure they were he on the General List, but that was as far as that went; they might be a major or a major-general, in ten pounds’ winter tweeds and boots not worth sixpence. That they were fathoms more than oh, Nora’s old friend from the service, any right-minded person might tell just by looking. Their eyes were dark, intent, and rather cold, unless they were speaking to their wife, and even their smile gave the idea they had run the numbers before the house cut the cards.
A year after Harriet’s own marriage, near enough the Silver Jubilee to have borrowed the spoons for the wedding breakfast, St. Clair had eloped, with Sherry as witness and Nora as heist driver. It was not the queerest thing about them, Harriet supposed, that their bride was Jewish and a shopkeeper’s widow, with children. She was sturdy and round-figured, with splendid green eyes and a quick warmth to match St. Clair’s reserve, and she was dressed anyhow, with a scarf tucked over all her hair and only a plain wedding band; she sat and mended a small worsted stocking as if she did not wear some carats of the Lowborough chaplet -- a rose or two, for her name’s sake -- on a chain near her heart.
The stocking’s owner was stretched on the carpet under the parlour chaise. Lily FitzGeorge was reading, though she looked too young to read, and bundled into a red wool kaftan trimmed four inches deep in sable; until she turned a page, her hands were hidden in the fur cuffs. It was too long for her, too warm even for a room with so little coal, and it was not an English coat; it seemed a small tsarevna had fallen into Bevis Marks with only a secondhand copy of National Velvet. A very well-looked-after child must have worn the coat, decades ago, on a cold voyage —over mountains, or across a long winter sea.
Harriet looked at St. Clair, not foreign, nor English, never quite one thing or another -- a study, like Nora, in which clothes made what sort of man, when that had nothing to do with the person in them -- and knew better than she had why the FitzGeorges, whose tranquil shabby house barely held the family, had put up hundreds of pounds for three children to make a sea journey alone.
“That’s a lovely coat,” Harriet said, to the underside of the chaise and the beaten-down cover of the book.
“Was Daddy’s,” Lily answered. “Now it’s mine.”
St. Clair reached down and caught her by the ankle. “Customary to look at grown people who speak to you.”
“No! Reading! No!”
“All right, wash up for tea.”
“Tateh, I don’t want my tea. I want it to be Hanukkah. I want to do dreidels.”
“I’m afraid I don’t care what you want, my Lily-my-heart. Hanukkah starts tomorrow, and tea in twenty minutes, and people whose hands are not washed will be too late for jam. Get moving, chaps,” they added, and scooped Lily up from the rug. She keeled in a boneless back-bend over St. Clair’s arm and hung there, making a world-weary sound in her throat.
“Lady Harry, did you mention the Zoo wants another python?”
“Oh, I thought they needed an eel.”
“Ah. We’ll have to send this one over straight away. No eel pies in this street.”
“Mameh, save me!”
“No.” Rose put away her work-basket, grinning. “I never touched treyf in my life!” But she took her daughter by the shoulders and righted her in St. Clair’s grasp, with a critiquing touch at the parting of her fair hair; the small girl in the princess’s coat was suddenly eye to eye with Harriet.
“Where’s Uncle Nate? You never came here before without Uncle Nate.”
“Raisel, will you --” St. Clair set Lily on her feet; Rose said “Sha, blumeleh,” at the same time.
When Harriet’s stomach had stopped turning round nothing but tea and nerves, when she could see and breathe again, someone’s gingham handkerchief was wrapped damply through her fingers and she was alone with St. Clair.
Somehow they held the telegram, though Harriet might swear she felt its weight still in her pocket. They made no remark, idiotic or sympathetic, only read the lines over once more, from Regret report to missing Sidi Barrani presumed killed, and returned it to her.
“It isn’t the worst. If I have hope of anybody, it’s Nora. She won’t panic; she’ll cope with most things. More than you think. And she’s not in the sticks.”
“Isn’t she? I don’t even know where those places are.”
“One place.” St. Clair met her temper without blinking. “I don’t have it on a map -- not one that’s up to date these thousand years -- and I haven’t been since the Twenties; I expect they were having a go at the Libyan border.”
“You’ve been there! Whatever for? Nora wrote -- and they didn’t black it out -- it was only a whole lot of nothing.”
“Botany,” they replied, nonsensical.
“I thought,” Harriet broke off, miserably. “I thought you must know someone on Cairo station. Someone who might know what really happened.”
“Then your brother --!” She worked at the braid on one sleeve until its stitches creaked, trying to fit her next words to a thing always scrupulously unspoken. “If she -- if she’s hurt, and not -- dead, she can’t be left in a field hospital. She’ll be found out. The regiment will know.”
“I suspect the regiment do know, and don’t care. She’s good at her job; always has been; she brings her men back. And please don’t ask me again to involve my brother. Theo’s useless outside of -- outside his particular purview,” St. Clair stopped her. “Triply useless anywhere there’s sand. Do you more good to contemplate a miracle.”
“I don’t want a miracle. I know one doesn’t get miracles in the real world. I only want news.”
Moshe, who remembers his father, refers to St. Clair as Tateleh, 'little father,' but Lily, who can't remember him, just calls them Tateh, 'daddy.' Yiddish diminutives are great for shades of meaning!
Meyn likhtel: my little (but not my littlest!) light.
Treyf: not kosher, in this case, an eel. Or a human, for that matter.
Blumeleh: Little flower.
Botany: this is a Bad Classicist Joke. See also: silphium.
Harry was beside her, holding her, on a mattress hardly big enough for one. She was wearing her Wrens’ uniform, without her cover or her tie, and Eleanor’s ether-sick vision blurred a moment at the blue against bright white.
“Oh, I’m dreaming.” When she reached to brush back her wife’s curls, no bandages got in Eleanor’s way.
“Of course you’re dreaming. It’s the middle of the night.”
“I don’t want it to be a dream. I want, I want --” tears overwhelmed her, great cowardly shuddering gasps against Harriet’s blouse. The scent of laundry starch and rosewater got twisted up with iodine and engine smoke; Nora started to cough, then to sob. Even dreaming, salt water turned to fire on her sand-scraped cheeks.
“Hush. Hush, Nora. It’s over, it’s all over.” Harry kissed her, very gently, and touched with a cool handkerchief at Eleanor’s face. It came away smeared black and stippled red, but some of the hurt receded.
“Have I -- then --”
“ Why would I be here if you’d died? Do you think I’d wear this awful get-up in heaven, dearest?”
“Don’t imagine I should get to heaven.”
Harriet laughed. “I meant what I said; it’s over. Come home safe.” She looked over her shoulder, sharply as if someone had stepped into the room, and whatever she saw made her dark eyes wide. Her hand shook against Eleanor’s skin; she swallowed, and smiled, and slipped off the bed. Real or not real, Eleanor heard the click of her shoes.
“Oh don’t, don’t go yet, Harry, love!”
“Open your eyes, can’t you, Gorgeous? Sherry’s been pining for you.”
Eleanor moaned a little in disappointment. John was standing, Sherry sitting, so close their beard-shadowed faces filled her vision; they were pale, bruised, beaten, and not her wife. “Laurel,” she sighed up at them. “Hardy.”
“Never mind the cracked head! Her mind’s still mint.”
Details began to filter in, like shading a pencilled picture. This was a proper hospital -- it had proper walls -- and this was a room, as none of them had seen for months, with beds, a sink, shelves. The windows were closed to the afternoon sun and the room was perishing hot. All three of them were alive; all three were white with bandages, stark-smelling from disinfectant. She was the only one drugged up and laid flat.
“How long,” tried Eleanor. “Have I,” and then she had to stop speaking, or puke. Madhouse stabbed through the haze of her pain, court martial, firing squad. Harry.
“Couple of days.” Sherbourne shrugged.
The terror could not float up through the morphine, but she felt her eyes widen -- felt every muscle pin her flat to the bed -- forgot to breathe, and went dizzy from lack of air. Eleanor tried to say anything; a queer tight keening was all she heard.
“Sherry told the surgeon straight on he’d find tits, not bits,” said Major Linton of the Seventh Armoured Division, stroking Eleanor’s hand. “Poshed him to death, both titles, and laid on those eyelashes. Now you’re embedded in our unit, I hope you know, to do Government things -- like Mata Hari.”
“Not exactly like,” cut in Sherbourne. “Anyway. Secrets Act. Can’t say a thing.”
“F….fuck me. ” She licked over her teeth, to count them, struggled and choked on blood. “Happy Christmas -- John -- Sherry.”
“You’re not so pretty as you were, so I’ve stopped fearing they’ll dress you like a girl,” said Sherbourne, grim. “But don’t die, if you please; I don’t want compassionate leave that badly.”
“I’ll bear it in mind.” Eleanor gasped as everything hurt, suddenly, from her sand-thrashed face to her limbs and chest. John leant over, with a drinking straw in a tumbler of ice-water, and she could have married him, Harriet and all, there and then.
“Chin up! Oh, don’t move your chin, actually, I say .” John winced. “It ain’t as black as Sherry paints. Only a sand burn, and what’s a finger or two? He was so convinced you’d popped off, he never noticed he’d broke his leg in three places.”
“Both yours are fine!” Sherbourne reassured her. “Mostly fine, once the skin grows back. But -- a merry Christmas to you, dear -- I believe you’re going home to see Harry.”
CW: one use of anti-Semitic slur. It doesn't go unchallenged.
At half past four, as Harriet was washing her face for the third time, Moshe knocked at the door of his own room. “Dad says, will you come down, it’s time.” He slipped past her and collected his school cap and a couple of well-thumbed comics. “We haven’t an Anderson,” he added, apologetic, so Harriet did not have to ask time for what.
She followed him downstairs, declined a back issue of the Beano for her gas-mask case, and accepted a muffler knit from wool-ends in six colors and a tweed. He locked the house solemnly after her -- “Lily’s slow, and she’ll only go with Mum and Dad, and there’s the queue,” and took Harriet’s hand to lead her over the road and two blocks up to the Tube station. It had a proper S sign, stark white, above the entrance, and a calm queue that wrapped against the shop fronts almost to the next station on the line.
“Here’s Aunt Harriet, Tateleh. ”
“Nu, what d’you want, meyn likhtel, sixpence?” St. Clair raised an eyebrow. They carried a satchel, their gas-mask case, and their stepdaughter, and over their clothes of half an hour earlier they had thrown a civil defense coverall, an extremely ordinary -- not to say ratty -- jumper, and a wool drab field tunic, open in front. It fit them as if it had been theirs from new, and up the sleeve ran three stripes and a crown. None of the children turned an eyelash at any of it.
“No, sir. Shilling.”
“Ugh,” they said, and there was a quick flash of new silver in the dim street. “Inflation.”
“Liebster meyner, take that back from him, he’ll only spend it!”
They shrugged. “It’s all his own in the end, Raisel. Lady Harry, this is where I leave you -- the all-clear usually goes by sunrise.”
Harriet, her grief half-charmed and half-baffled away by the family’s banter, came rather harshly back to herself. The sky over the East End looked like a bruise; the station entrance, with its pair of wardens, seemed the most forbidding place in the world. “Why, where are you going -- and ought I to say Sergeant FitzGeorge?”
“Fire watch. You’re welcome -- of course you’re welcome. But you won’t pass a restful night.”
“I don’t care if I never close my eyes again.”
St. Clair looked very much like they wanted to say something, but Lily FitzGeorge’s arms had locked round their neck, her small fingers threaded into their braided hair. She was whispering fiercely, with furrowed brows, and St. Clair whispered back. Lily, meticulous, unfastened the silver King George and the gold Lady Victory from their field dress and pinned the medals on her own coat -- a ritual, from the grubby spots on the ribbons -- before St. Clair might hand her over to Rose. Lady Lowborough said nothing at all, only took hold of her husband’s collar with her free hand and tugged them close.
It was a goodbye kiss, and Harriet looked away; some fellow remarked, around the last of his cigarette, the chap in his dad’s old tunic ought not to make free with sheeny girls in the street. St. Clair sent an Agincourt V in his direction, clapped their hand down on Moshe FitzGeorge’s shoulder before he could bolt into a fight with a grown man, and troubled themselves not an inch further until the station clock ticked over to the hour. Then the queue started moving, faster than Harriet expected of a crowd of the very young and the very old. She thought of passing the night in the Tube station, in the heat, below ground like a grave ready-made, and began to suffocate where she stood. Panic locked her lungs and closed her mouth, until someone jostled her in the most ordinary way and she nearly screamed.
“Lady Harry,” St. Clair began, without shifting their glance from Rose and the children until all six had disappeared into the station. “Move, Second Officer, one way or the other!”
She could, even if Signals corps was a bit feral, take an order from a set of stripes on a jacket, and St. Clair’s field dress far outranked her. Harriet kept up, as best she could, with the beam of St. Clair’s torch pointed down at the sidewalk rubble. It was the strange hour when the light seemed to hinder as often as help; St. Clair was a fast walker, Harriet’s gas-mask case banged against her chest every step, and she lost track of their turnings in the first half mile. Then something white loomed before her feet, and she nearly tripped up the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“How is it you’re on St. Paul’s watch?”
“I go where Theo sends me.” St. Clair shrugged. “You’ve read Sherlock Holmes, yes? It’s like that. He doesn’t care for people. He appreciates problems. He’s -- perceptive about them. Predictive. Inclined to be correct, the great prat. Before the war, beg pardon, the last war, he was only annoying about the crossword. Now he is annoying for the war effort, and his lot are worried about… seasonal symbolism.”
“Wouldn’t it be a bit on the nose, blowing up a cathedral at Christmas?”
“I must say, having had one eye on the Nazis since ‘thirty-six, I am underwhelmed by the subtlety of their gestures.”
“Since 'thirty-six," she faltered a little, but St. Clair was above them on the iron staircase and did not elaborate. “Nora mentioned, I thought, there were three brothers -- three of you,” Harry amended, “In the service. If your elder brother’s the nation’s Mycroft, where’s the middle one keeping himself?”
For some minutes after that, the only sounds were of St. Clair’s boots and Harriet’s shoes on the stairs as they climbed. They took it in silent turns to carry the stirrup pump, trading off every hundred stairs or so, and Harriet despised herself, her shoelaces, the blackout, and dead Sir Christopher Wren by the time they reached the last landing and the narrow sandbagged door that opened onto the Stone Gallery and the sky.
She did not look down. She looked up, into extraordinary dark -- it took Harriet some seconds to understand all the bright pinpoints up among bands of cloud as stars . There was no cover or shelter, only stone around her and old asphalt under her feet, and there was no sound at all besides their breathing. Someone had set a couple of sandbags against a water-barrel, by way of furniture; Harriet crouched there, after a while, to be out of the wind, to do anything besides standing useless above sleepless London.
St. Clair had been leaning on the parapet, looking down as if the height did not perturb them. They turned back with a shiver -- not from cold, Harriet was somehow certain, but dislike or unease -- and in the slight shelter of the water-barrel began to unpack their satchel.
“Marvelous up here,” Harriet lied, and compounded it, if a question could be a lie. “Height get to you?”
“Hm?” St. Clair was shifting a layer of books and a pencil case, and did not take bait. They laid down a bit of oilcloth and then, with great precision, set out the Thermos bottle of tea and a chipped-handled mug, a tin of sprats, half a jam jar of mustard, and two waxed-paper lumps just beginning to soak at the edges. They handed one of the lumps across to Harriet. "My wife," they said, and fear or anger served for punctuation. "My wife is underground, a mile away, a tenth as safe as we are. It is wrong, it's unfair, and I dislike it intensely."
Rose had sent a double ration of sandwiches, crusts trimmed, very neat and very sturdy, though there was so little light Harriet could not make out the filling. Having laid out the rest of the supper service, mostly an old handkerchief and a key for the fish tin, St. Clair sat on the freezing pavement with their back against the gallery’s wall, and held the tea mug briefly aloft in Harriet’s direction.
“God save the King,” they said, as if it were not a gusty night in December, blue-velvet-black above and below them, and Harriet murmured along with them and got a pungent drip from her sandwich packet down her cuff.
“Pickled beetroot and -- Raisel, thou saint amongst women!” St. Clair, eyes closed, was rapturously silent as long as it took to get down a bite of national loaf. “It’s butter!”
It was real butter, lavishly spread, and Harriet had forgotten there were such things in the world. Sweetness and sharpness, dill and peppercorn, even stolid beet and onion had gone out of mind. She had been living for six months now on tea and NAAFI toast, never buttered, always cold, and apt to taste of ink at the corner crust. The thought, or the vinegar, made Harriet’s throat go tight; she meant to compliment Lady Lowborough’s -- Rose’s -- food, or make polite comment on the effort of keeping a household in these times, but St. Clair seemed not to notice the falter in conversation.
“I never met a woman as capable, begging present company’s pardon. If only Whitehall listened to ladies, by April she’d have Hitler in chains in the Hague. Fish?” St. Clair had gotten into the sprats and was dipping one by the tail straight down in the mustard jar; it did nothing to dim Harriet’s impression of them as some peculiar, particular great cat.
“When are you going to tell her you’re not running down to Cambridge to lecture?”
“Never, if I read the paper right. Did they put the gun out on the table, when you signed?” St. Clair handed her the tea bottle. “And I am teaching!”
“Yes, frightfully interesting things!”
Harriet had nearly died of that shock: St. Clair, in combat boots and the only Denison smock ever to meet a tailor, shouting orders down a rain-slick meadow to a motley of boffins and Wrens. She had nearly died ten minutes after, too.
Flat out in wet grass and wheezing, her collarbone numb and her throat afire, Harriet had tried to gather wits and ask where in hell she’d gone wrong; St. Clair got in first. “You’re dead, Second Officer.”
They had offered their forearm for a lever, and held on a moment while Harriet considered blacking out. “Steady, then. Up you get.” Five more words than they had spoken to anyone else on the course, and the only hint St. Clair might have known her -- even seen her -- at all.
“You passed, didn’t you?” St. Clair’s tea mug scraped down on stone. “Talking of interesting, was it Nora taught you to shoot?”
“With a rifle, before we were married. I -- I’ve kept it up.”
“Noticed.” They studied their gloves. “Don’t be noticed. Not just now. And whatever’s happened -- if it has happened -- don’t let Baker Street use your grief.”
“Don’t what, I beg your pardon?” It was full dark now, a frigid night, and Harriet had only her uniform coat; she hardly wondered her hands and knees had started to shake.
“If Nora’s dead out in the desert, my heart breaks too, but Harry, listen: I don’t care if you’re a widow. Don’t go to France.”
“No one’s said a word to me about France!” Harriet got to her feet, unsettled. St. Clair had never spoken to her so directly -- had never spoken without giving Harriet her title, the silliest thing -- and now the conversation hung at the edge of treason.
She decided to push it over. “It’s gone wrong out there, hasn’t it.”
“You’re Signals, not me.” St. Clair checked their wristwatch and swept the supper things back into their satchel. They turned up a pair of field glasses and -- from courtesy, she supposed -- passed them to Harriet first. “Up,” they said, and then, relenting, “northeast.”
They had hardly finished speaking when the sirens began, the long low wail wavering up off the rooftops below. Soldiers must feel this way, thought Harriet, as she parsed the first shock of that sound; St. Clair was a soldier, of some sort, but Harriet was only a signals mind in a naval uniform. She stared a long, dreadful moment through the field glasses and couldn’t see anything at all, but she felt a drone and a tremor, beneath her feet, inside her ears and her throat.
St. Clair heard it, or felt it, just as she did. They had collected themselves into a crouch, and their eyes were steady on some point above the Cathedral dome.
“Wh-what is it?”
“Well, it isn’t exchange-students. Bright light,” they warned, quite coolly, and lifted a hand to brace Harriet without looking. She had never seen an anti-aircraft gun put to use; it was like sheet lightning, after so much winter dark, and for a few seconds Harriet blinked blind. The blast, just after the flash, scared a disgraceful yelp from her.
“You’re fine,” said St. Clair, very kindly not asking the return of their hand, though Harriet had clutched it down to the wedding band and the bones. “We’re not helpless. Watch.”
There was nothing to watch, only moments at which the stars and wisps of cloud were blotted out overhead, only a current of air Harriet might have imagined, and still the horrid, almost-unheard drone.
“Spitfires. Hurricanes, in a minute: you’ll catch the sound. It was all just coming into fashion, the last time round... I would have given anything… Well. Wife and kids, now.”
Harriet let go, set her back against the gallery wall, and put her knees together to stop them shaking. “How long before…?” She handed their field glasses back; St. Clair glanced through them, out toward the Channel, and whistled.
“Ten minutes. If your field tags are in your pocket, put them on.” They raised a contrite eyebrow to Harriet. “Ought to’ve asked sooner: are you very much afraid of fire?”
a proper S sign: The East End was under-provided with deep shelter during the Blitz, and some Tube stations were S for Shelter, and some were not. Liverpool Street station was the most popular choice on historical record for the Jews of the East End, for centrality and size.
Liebster meyner: my love, but conspicuously said to a male-identified person; a public sentiment and a bit of camouflage.
the silver King George and the gold Lady Victory: A British War Medal and an Allied Great War service medal. Someday Lily FitzGeorge will realize the name and service number on their rims are her parent's, and have to do math.
In the cloudy old mirror above the bedroom sink, a ghost from Bazentin-le-P’tit looked back at St. Clair. There was a bit more grey in the hair, but then as now their dark eyes were touched red from mud and ash; then as now they’d have sold anything for hot water. They wondered if their expression had been the same, stricken stupid with weariness, a little surprised to remain alive. St. Clair looked away and made themselves cough, braced against the sink, until everything black had come up.
It must be, they thought, half past nine in the morning. The house was empty, but for Lady Harriet downstairs; the only sound was the rush of the cold-water tap, its pipes rattling protest in the bedroom wall. St. Clair had buried their face in the last clean flannel before they heard footsteps on the stairs, too hesitant, too tired to be Rose back from the school rounds and the shops.
“Only a minute, please, Lady Harry --”
Rose cried out, and let a stack of folded whites slip to the floor.
“Raisel! Where’ve you come from?”
“The clothesline? Oh, oh, I thought...” She sniffled, and didn’t finish. “I sent them all to school -- you hadn’t come -- I was worried. ” It cost her, to say that; she pressed against St. Clair before they could turn to face her, and held on hard. “Are you all right?!”
“Only tired, and sick of smoke.” St. Clair folded and re-folded the flannel, to find a bit that wasn’t grey, and scrubbed as if it might make them more awake. “Paternoster Row’s gone. All those books, Raisel!”
“You’re here.” Her hands warmed St. Clair’s aching chest. “You’re breathing. I have no give-a-damn about books. Nu, divorce me!”
“It’s a near thing.” They shifted just far enough to capture a kiss. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to get word to you. I thought a telegram wasn’t --”
“No. Stop, stop even joking.” Rose was working the buttons of St. Clair’s blackened coverall, beneath their jumper all shot with holes from last night’s embers. She was very careful not to let them catch sight of her in the mirror. “That I should see your name in a telegram, keyn ayin-hora. ”
“Is this a seduction? I haven’t cleaned my teeth!”
“It’s sleep, gonif. I’m not letting you near the bed in these clothes. Where’s Lady Harry?”
“Sticking her head under the kitchen tap. She’s not --” St. Clair yawned. “Not what you think of her. She gave as much hell as they sent, certainly.”
“I think fine of her! But.” She pitched the singed jumper toward the wash basket and drew St. Clair onto the bed. “I do wish she wouldn’t treat me as if I were posh.”
“You are now posh by marriage, I’m ‘fraid.” St. Clair put on their Broadcasting House vowels. “You outrank Harry’s husband at state dinners — and you might, as you wished, dip into the accounts.”
Rose’s laugh, suppressed, sent her nose-first into the nape of St. Clair’s neck. “Not enough money in them, not for what I’d really want.”
“A ceasefire? A poisoning in the Berchtesgaden? Another baby?”
She turned to the pillow, then, and whooped into it and clutched St. Clair round the middle; her scarf was slipping, when St. Clair looked over their shoulder, and her face was very pink. “Well. Proper paper for the lav, I thought! But go on and try as hard as you like at all those.”
Rose was still laughing, when they closed their eyes, but the smoke of Paternoster Row shifted and paled around them into the fog of Delville Wood; when they blinked and tried again, sleep had fled them.
“Oh, lord.” Rose flicked a corner of the coverlet over them. Daylight was beginning to sharpen the corners of their bedroom, even through the blackout curtains; in two hours, lunch for eight people would have to be sorted.
When her hand stayed on St. Clair’s shoulder, they went on. “I don’t mean to keep you waking; only I’ve done rather an illegal thing.”
“Well, might you be caught?”
“No! Lady Harry helped me ring round to Cairo --”
“You can’t just ring Cairo! It’s in Egypt!”
“ -- radioteletype takes too long to say, and it wasn’t really me, on the record, it was Theo.”
“And a handful of his credentials. Double handfuls of his punch tape. Cairo station relayed me on to Alexandria, which was quite kind of them…took half the morning, but I suppose there’s a war on.”
“St. Clair, what on earth have you done?”
“My friend’s out there wounded, and Lady Harry’s brother and his husband --”
“My love, what.”
“Authorized evacuation for all casualties from the Seventh Armoured.”
Bazentin-le-P’tit: part of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, "an attack organized for amateurs by amateurs," July 1916. The British infantry won the piece of ground, and lost a lot else. The "Immortal" 7th Infantry [not fictional, actually its nickname] went over the top from a cemetery in the Somme basin with at least one fictional 15-year-old and their elder siblings. St. Clair no longer enjoys cemeteries. The "Immortal 7th" also saw action at Passchendaele and Vittorio Veneto. I'm authorially sorry to have done this to them.
keyn ayin-hora: [May there be] no evil eye. One shouldn't mention telegrams in a war.
gonif: a colorful and varied word with shades from 'dope' to 'dickhead' to 'literally a criminal.'
Delville Wood: a battlefield of the Somme, it only remained a wood in the sense of standing trees for about five minutes once the artillery arrived. British and South African forces were pinned down and picked off from mid-July to September 1916.
In Rose’s old Lion-of-Judah menorah, the shammes and the last candle were lit. The tea things were still scattered, mugs under chairs and plates on the chimneypiece, and there was one latke half-hidden in its sheet of newsprint on the platter -- even a hungry family had only so much taste for potatoes, these days. The apple-and-parsnip cake was only crumbs. The ginger biscuits had gone, too, while Lily was still counting the seconds down to sunset on St. Clair’s wristwatch.
“Candles! Aunt Harriet, candles. You aren’t looking. You should look .”
Lady Harriet glanced up, when Lily called to her, but she had grown quieter and quieter in the FitzGeorges’ raucous house; she half-smiled and kept her hands in her sleeves. GCCS had signed to the full week’s compassionate leave -- she ain’t reading tonight’s Shipping Forecast, Lavender-Blue, never mind your stecker pairs, I will get out of your ear the minute you make the way straight -- and since then Captain Fleming’s wife had drifted. She did the washing-up, morning and noon, much as it mortified Rose, but could not be trusted to mind the kettle; she wouldn’t sit, or read, but hauled what wanted hauling back from the allotment. In the afternoons she might sleep an hour or two, while St. Clair held her hand and Rose stroked her hair. You don’t have to come down, one or the other had said, around three o’clock when Harriet woke. It’s for the children. She’d traded Rose’s old paisley bed-jacket for her uniform kit and slipped into the study before the sun went, just the same.
There were the blessings, and the children’s gifts, a loud try at Ikh Bin a Kleyner Dreydl in rounds, and only the first twelve words of Ma’oz Tzur. Harriet shook hands with St. Clair on a happy Christmas and a happy New Year and both of them forced some cheer into it, while all the young people fell about laughing and reaching over each other’s heads for the box of chocolate creams.
St. Clair found Rose’s arm as she stood beside them, and without saying anything she held on. It was not a grand menorah, though the brass had been brought up to a shine; the candles were wartime ones, and flickered and smoked. But here was something that had not been taken from them, even now when every light was hidden; here was something to drive all the dark away.
“Take it to the window, chaps, just for a moment. Don’t be afraid.”
There, the lights looked very small against so much darkness. Moshe’s face and Peter’s were cast in wavering relief and Harriet, half sharp-lit and half obscured where she leaned on St. Clair’s desk, looked like a madonna of the WRNS, patient, pragmatic, and grieved. Even Lily left off trying to spin a dreidel on its stem end, and gazed at the flames’ reflection in the windowpane.
“Dad,” Moshe said, very sharp, and tumbled back from the glass. “A warden’s out there, we’re for it!”
“Just there, on the walk! He must be cold as creepers, too, a night like this.”
“We’ll stand him a cup of punch before he fines us.” St. Clair moved the menorah from harm’s way and, with a long look into the night-blank street, twitched the curtain once more into place. The front walk was empty; the place was too muffled up in blackout cloth for them to mark out footsteps above the noise of five children trying their hardest to be quiet.
The knock was crisp and carrying, when it came. St. Clair thought War Office, and Harriet sat up too. Sophie, Friedl, and Peter jumped like rabbits.
“You’re all right. No one’s going anywhere. We’ll take a fine, and we’ll go on celebrating.” St. Clair unlooped Friedl’s arm, gently, from their waist. “No one’s going anywhere.” They put a hand down for a pen to sign the citation, as they passed their desk, and bent to speak into Rose’s ear.
“Expect I’ll get a hatful of horse shit -- yes, fine, rightly -- but close the door after me. They’ve had enough of shouting in the dark, and I hope I’m a match for the ARP fellow.”
Of course there was no light in the corridor; of course they got snagged up on someone’s satchel in the entry. The bolt resisted, in the cold, and some strange feeling began to work at St. Clair’s nerves. It was New Year’s Eve, past curfew, and their warden would never knock like that. Suddenly they had very much rather not open the front door.
“Hello? Oh please. Only it’s so cold here. Hello?”
The soldier on the step was not in proper battledress. A rucksack knocked at the crossbar of one crutch, a rifle at the other. The night wind had started to scour along the house fronts, and a cold gust stirred the soldier’s hair: even with no light at all, even with dust and damp in it, it was fine and fair as the FitzGeorges’ sons’.
“You.” St. Clair couldn’t come up with more, wouldn’t name a ghost at their own threshold, and then Eleanor tried to clear a crutch over the matting and stumbled. “You -- ow -- on crutches. In the blackout. Bloody hell!”
“I had a lift from some of the Croydon lads, just to the bottom of your street. I’ve not walked from Tobruk.” Eleanor was not too pale, but her embrace was wobbly; under the ozone smell of a cargo hold was the sharp note of disinfectant, the iron of old blood.
“Who cleared you for flight? And when ? You ought to be in hospital!”
“I think some paperwork was fiddled with. Might happen to anyone; there’s a war on.”
“We’d have watched for you -- collected you -- there’s still petrol in England, you ass!”
She grinned, with the side of her mouth that could grin. “I told them you were on the telephone, but I expect someone forgot. A walk never hurt anyone.”
“Nora, your legs are bleeding.”
She looked down, a little bewildered, at the red blotting through her puttees. “Oh. Must have opened up a bit, landing in Lisbon. I was -- I was in and out of it.”
“ Raisel, ” St. Clair said, not shouting, and wished they had never asked her to close the study door.
“Hello, Rosie! No, I’ll manage it -- no, I’m fine --”
“Knock it off, Nora. Is there somewhere you’re not bleeding?”
Together they half-carried Eleanor, still protesting, down the corridor to the study. She never made a sound when Rose stumbled, though the jolt must have caused her pain; her forehead went down on St. Clair’s shoulder, and for the first time St. Clair worried she would die.
“Wait, wait.” Eleanor winced. “Stop, wait. Your house… Full of refugee kids. The rifle, my Webley. They shouldn’t see all that.”
“It’s my Webley, I’ll thank you to remember.”
“Have it back, then, you never told me it kicks left.” Her laugh trailed into a terrible cough. “Got us out of that last pinch, though. Sorry, Rosie, coming here armed…”
Rose stood still, taking the better part of Nora’s weight, while St. Clair worked out how to disarm a person who ought not even be upright and dressed; rifle sling, Browne belt, a sodding great field knife, and the old service revolver all wanted coping with. Two or three of the Webley’s cartridges hit the floor when St. Clair broke it, and rolled into the dark with a racket like hell. Eleanor shuddered, and Rose murmured to her in the soft, steady voice she used when one of the children was feverish.
“Shh. Captain Fleming, Captain Fleming, you’re with friends. Don’t die on my downstairs carpet, please, not after coming so far!”
“Please...If you could get word to Harry…”
“No need for that, Captain.” Rose shouldered open the study door.
“St. Clair, you must know where my wife is!”
GCCS: Government Code and Cypher School.
Ikh Bin a Kleyner Dreydl: I Had a Little Dreidel. I don't know why it's "I am a..." in Yiddish except for scansion.
[T]he first twelve words of Ma’oz Tzur: no one actually knows the rest of the song. Try it. It is lost to our collective cultural memory.
Webley: Standard service revolver. The loan from St. Clair to Fleming, the Great War to the current war, was not apotropaic; officers had to provide their own small arms, and it's not like Fleming could afford that.
...the loan was maybe a little apotropaic.
Harriet knew it was some trick of sleeplessness -- of the blackout -- knew so it hurt like hell this was not real, but the bright-burning candles showed the blue of Eleanor’s eyes, the gold of her hair. She had to bite her fingertips to keep from shouting; her teacup slid and smashed on the floor.
“Yes, as it happens.” St Clair was closing some conversation from the corridor, their voice a little strained from weight across their shoulders. The soldier braced between them and Rose was so very like --
“Harry! ” Eleanor shouted, and tried to reach for her, in a confusion of crutches and bloodstains and snagged-up webbing. Everything went out of Harriet, wits first, and she found herself on the damp carpet among bits of china.
“St. Clair, if brandy’s on the ration, there’s whiskey in my bag!”
“I’m fine.” Harriet thought no one must have heard her. Moshe, sliding a little in worn shoes, darted past and returned with a first-aid pouch; he hesitated between Harriet on the floor and Eleanor, bleeding on the FitzGeorges’ sofa, until his mother took the kit from his hands and his other parent spoke.
“Take this lot upstairs, Moshe, and get ready for bed.”
“Tateleh, the sirens?”
“The sirens won’t go tonight. Luftwaffe’s too fucking piss-drunk to get aloft.”
“ Dad …?”
“Upstairs, all of you, and play Twenty Questions until midnight if you want.” Rose shooed them with her hands, like chickens, but Lily lingered, crouched, and fiddled with one bitten-ended ribbon just in Harriet’s sight. She licked a cake crumb from the corner of her mouth before speaking.
“Our Sophie Ochs owes me sixpence.” Lily patted Harriet’s hair, just lightly. “I bet her I knew Uncle Nate would come back, and didn’t she take the bet! Mameh, Aunt Harriet needs the styptic-- you’ve got a hole in your knee, did you know?”
Perhaps two minutes had passed since Eleanor -- Eleanor, here -- had come into the room, looking half-dead, held up by friends and cheap crutches, still shedding sand from her uniform’s creases. Harriet got up, with difficulty but without treading on a small child. Her knee was bleeding down into her torn stocking. A three-cornered curve from what had been a teacup clinked to the floor a second time. Rose or St. Clair had gotten Eleanor’s boots off; they were shoved, forgotten, half under the desk and they were small, they really were Nora’s, ammunition boots in size six were not anything Harriet’s mind would hallucinate.
Eleanor was too badly hurt to be anything but real. Her chin was hidden in white gauze, and her cheek, straight up to the black eye. Three fingers of her right hand were splinted together, sand-scraped down to the wrist; her left hand was entirely muffled in bandages that ran up her forearm, under her sleeve. Her legs, propped on the low table meant for tea-things and children’s games, still bled through their wrappings. Rose stood by Eleanor’s left knee, and St. Clair at her right, so Harriet could hardly see -- never mind reaching Nora without shoving one of them. They spoke to one another in Yiddish, low and calm, opaque to Harriet as a wall.
Something happened, fast, and Eleanor howled.
Such a sound might have frozen anyone; it ran down Harriet’s bones like flame. She got to her wife, over the back of the bloodied-up chintz sofa, before she knew she had moved. The back seam of her skirt went to hell, one of Harriet’s shoes had caught on Lady Lowborough’s petit-point cushions and her ankle was twisted beneath her, but she was alive and Eleanor was, too. In the wild near-spent candlelight she kissed Nora’s forehead -- there was nowhere else she dared -- and tried to work out how to hold her without further hurt. “Nora. Dearest. It’s over, it’s all over.”
“Harry,” she whispered, shuddering as if the room were cold. She tucked her bandaged cheek against Harriet’s shoulder, nuzzled close as she could, and her sigh was as much gratitude as exhaustion when Harriet hooked her thumb over Eleanor’s unbandaged one.
"Isn't there sulfa left in the Empire?" St. Clair sounded furious. Swathes of gauze, spotted and stained, pooled at their feet. “When were these last seen to?”
“In Athens...this morning… yesterday morning?”
“Oh, that’s nice. Have you had anything for pain since? I’ve got diamorphine or a punch in the head.”
Eleanor tried to laugh. Between the desert and Mitre Street, someone had cut her trousers just below the knee; Harriet knew with one look that St. Clair and Rose had been kind in an awful way, getting the bandages off so quickly. One look was all Harriet could bear.
“Please. Please take something.” She risked running a hand over Nora’s hair. “It’s safe. I won’t go anywhere.”
“Will. I promise. Soon. I love you,” said Nora, over and again as if to make up for a year. “I love you, how are you here ?”
“They reported,” Harriet tried. Her voice went out like a candle. “They said. You’d been killed.”
“Only blown up, a bit.” She drew Harriet in, with her better hand, and it must have hurt her to speak, so hushed but so clearly, utter prattle about mistakes in wars , and the best will in the world , and at last we were all so frightened, dearest, we each thought the others -- and then Eleanor saw what Harriet reached for and turned a little aside, to breathe. "Harry...? What on earth?"
“I dreamed -- you don’t understand, I saw -- it’s cut,” she held up the lone disc of Eleanor’s field tag on its cord. “It’s cut!”
diamorphine: heroin, actually!
Aaaand that's the end of that.