When Tommy opened his door, Rose was sitting on the top step, waiting. She’d been waiting for ages; since well before it got light. It had been a little boring, but there had been interesting shadows on the wall and some strange middle of the night sounds coming from outside and from inside as well. He stopped, one foot in his room, one out, and looked at her.
He’d one suspender over his shoulder, the other still hanging down, and he didn’t move to pull it up. He just stood. His face was doing all sorts of things, it was almost like a dance, a secret sort of dance with only tiny steps and twirls. Rose cocked her head and watched in fascination; the gentle flare of nostrils, a nearly invisible smile that came and went and came and went and couldn’t make its mind up, his eyes flickering with all kinds of worry and surprise and a little bit of fear even.
“Were you on the Titanic?” Rose asked when his face stopped dancing.
“What?” He tipped his head to the side a bit.
“With Alice’s dad?”
Rose rolled her eyes. She wasn’t sure if the question had woken her up or if she’d just thought of it as soon as she was awake, but she’d been waiting to ask it for hours. It hadn’t occurred to her that Tommy would be difficult about it, she’d gotten the impression he was quite clever the day before.
“D’you know Alice’s dad?”
“Who’s Alice?” He was still standing in the doorway, as if he wasn’t sure if he was allowed out here with her.
“My friend.” Rose leaned back against the wall. “She’s five.”
“I’m nearly five as well.”
“Do you?” Rose was genuinely surprised.
Tommy opened his mouth and closed it again.
“So, do you know her dad?”
“Alice’s,” Rose said with a sigh.
“I…maybe?” Tommy said uncertainly. “What’s their last name?”
“But were you?”
“Was I what?”
“On the Titanic.”
He looked properly confused now. Fair enough, Rose knew it was confusing to wake up in a strange place. You needed people to be nice and patient when you came to a new place, so you’d feel welcome. She scooched over on the step and patted the spot next to her. Very slowly Tommy came out of his room and sat down beside her.
“So,” Rose started afresh, “Alice’s dad’s not comin’ back from the war. Because he was on the Titanic when it got shot and sanked. He’s at the bottom of the ocean now.”
“For a fact?”
“Yea.” Rose nodded solemnly. “It’s orright but.”
“Why?” Tommy asked after a while.
“ ‘cause there’s loads of other people,” Rose explained. “The others from the boat.”
They sat side by side on the top step, listening to the kitchen-sounds drifting up.
“Alice is five, is she?”
“Five,” Rose confirmed.
“And her dad went down with the Titanic?”
“Yes.” Rose smiled at him, pleased he was with it now. “How come you’re here and he’s on the bottom of the ocean?”
“What are you on about?”
“Do you not remember?” Rose asked, frowning. Surely one wouldn’t forget such a wild adventure. “But-“
“There you are,” Polly’s voice interrupted from the bottom of the stair. “What’s the pair of you up to?”
“Having a chat,” Tommy said. Polly smiled so wildly it looked like she was about to start crying.
“He’s not listenin’ properly,” Rose complained.
“He’s not?” Polly sounded completely delighted. “You’d do well to listen, Thomas, our Rosie’s got much to tell.”
“I’ve noticed,” he said drily. “D’you know Rosie’s Alice?”
“What’s the story there?”
“I told him the story,” Rose said accusingly. “But he’s not answering me.”
“What story?” Polly asked.
“About Alice’s dad sinking with the Titanic,” Tommy said before Rose had a chance. “And how he’s on the bottom of the ocean now with all the other people who drowned. See,” he turned to Rose, “I’m listening.”
“Ah, Rosie, you duffer,” Polly sighed. “Alice’s dad was on the Lusitania, not the bloody Titanic.”
“Oh.” Rose grinned sheepishly.
“That makes a bit more sense, then,” Tommy said. “Right, so-“
“Were you on the Lusitania?” Rose asked.
Tommy closed his eyes for a moment, it looked to Rose like he might be counting sheep or rosary beads.
“No,” he said finally, “I was not on the Lusitania with Alice’s dad.”
“Where were you?”
“In a place where you couldn’t get a decent breakfast, that’s where he was,” Polly came to Tommy’s rescue. “Come on, both of you.”
“Do we have to?” Rose asked.
“Yea, we do,” Tommy said, getting up and starting down the stairs. “D’you like eggs, Rosie?”
“Everyone likes bread.”
“D’you like bacon?” she asked.
“I do, yea.”
“Me, too,” Rose smiled up at him. “Bacon’s bloody lovely.”
“Are you like a cat?”
Tommy was standing out the back smoking; Rose was balancing up and down the wall between theirs and next door.
“Am I like a cat?” Tommy repeated.
“Am I like a cat how?”
“Can you see in the dark?”
Rose stopped at the end of the wall closest to him.
“You’ve huge eyes but.”
“I can’t see in the dark, Rosie.”
She walked the length of the wall and got back just in time to see him flick his cigarette out into the lane.
“It’d be handy,” she said.
“No arguments there,” he admitted.
“Where were you?”
Tommy closed the bog’s door behind him and looked down at Rose with a rather incredulous expression.
“Where d’you reckon?” he asked back.
Rose bit her lip. She hadn’t meant to annoy him. Polly kept telling her to stop following him around, to stop waiting in front of closed doors and to stop sneaking up on him. Polly didn’t seem to understand that Rose absolutely couldn’t stop doing any of these things. It was orright now though, Polly’d been asleep for hours.
“I was in there.” Tommy motioned to the door behind him.
“Yea, I know,” Rose said. “But before.”
“Down the shop.”
“Aunt Polly’s shop?”
“Is that who’s it is.”
“Yea.” Rose shook her head, feeling bad for him because he knew almost nothing. “Before but?”
“What exactly is it you want to know?” Tommy was laughing now, a little, but it sounded desperate rather than happy.
“Where were you?” Rose repeated.
“When?” “Before you were here.”
“Ah.” Tommy nodded. “With you now. France. I was in France.”
“Just a place,” he said after thinking it over for a moment. “Are you hungry, Rosie?”
“I am,” he announced.
Rose trailed him through the dark, quiet house to the kitchen. He got an apple and a knife, and started peeling it. Rose watched as the impossibly thin apple skin grew longer and longer and longer and curly like a very nice bit of hair. Tommy put the knife down and held out the perfectly skinned apple in one hand and the snake of peel in the other.
“Which one’s yours?” he asked.
Rose held her hand out and the apple peel curled over her palm.
“Orright, now. You can eat that,” Tommy pointed to her share of the apple, “and then it’s back to bed.”
“Finn says you used to be a mole,” Rose announced, choosing to ignore the mention of bed.
Tommy chewed his bite of apple slowly.
“A mole,” he said finally.
“Yea.” Rose lifted the apple peel by one end to see how far it would go. “How did you get to be a person again?”
“Was it a witch?” Rose asked. “Did it hurt?”
“It’s the middle of the night-“
“Did you eat bugs when you were a mole?”
“Did you live in the ground?”
She was playing the apple peel like an accordion now. Tommy leaned back against the bench and stared at her.
“Yea,” he said after a bit.
“I was in the ground,” Tommy said. “I didn’t live in it, but I was there a lot. Making tunnels.”
“Were you very small?” Rose asked, the apple peel forgotten on the table in front of her.
“What? Ah. No, no…Finn’s got the wrong end of it,” Tommy pulled out a chair and sat down opposite her. “I wasn’t a mole, not a real one.”
“Were you a person?” Rose was kneeling on her chair now, elbows on the table, leaning as close to him as the table would allow.
“Yea,” he said hoarsely.
“A person in a tunnel in the ground?”
“That was the job,” Tommy said.
“Why didn’t the moles do it?”
“Make the tunnels?” he asked, one corner of his mouth twitching a little.
“I s’pose real moles weren’t stupid enough to volunteer.”
“Time for bed, that’s what,” he interrupted.
“But I…” Rose scanned the room for a convenient reason to stay up and settled on the apple peel, “…I’ve to eat this still.”
“Eat it in bed.”
“I’m allowing it,” Tommy announced.
“Can you do that?” Rose asked dubiously.
“I’m the dad, ‘course I can.”
He’d surprised her and himself as well, by the looks of it. They eyed each other cautiously across the table.
“I forgot,” Rose whispered.
She nodded, fidgeting with the apple peel. It broke. That was sad.
“Who did you think I was?”
“Dunno…” Rose felt like she might cry.
“It’s orright,” he said quickly. “I don’t mind.”
She looked up at him uncertainly.
“Come on,” Tommy said. “Time for bed, eh? Will I take you upstairs?”
Rose shook her head and got up slowly.
“You’ll go on your own?”
“Yea,” she said.
“Good night then, Rosie.”
She stopped when she got to the kitchen door.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” she asked.
But when she got up the next morning, he was already out.
Rose woke up in the middle of the night. She swung her legs out of the bed and tiptoed over to where Finn was sleeping. He woke up when she lifted his blanket, trying to get in with him.
“Go ‘way,” he grumbled, half asleep. “There’s no room.”
“Go sleep with Ada…”
Stealthily, Rose made her way across the hallway to Ada’s door, but it wouldn’t open. Ada’d started to block it with a chair, probably so she could sneak out at night unnoticed. Rose stood in the dark hallway uncertainly. She could hear snoring coming from the far end, where the other one was sleeping, the loud one, Arthur. Polly’s room was next to his, he’d keep both of them up with his racket if Rose went in there.
Very, very quietly, she eased open the door to Tommy’s room, slipped across to the side of his bed and stood, looking.
He was dreaming like a dog, his legs kicking tiny kicks against the blanket, his hands opening and closing and opening and closing. It didn’t look like a nice dream, he was frowning in his sleep. Before she could make up her mind what to do, he sat up with a gasp, bringing them almost nose to nose. He jerked back with a sharp intake of breath, she’d scared him, she could tell.
“Sorry,” Rose whispered.
“I woke up.”
“Did I wake you?” he asked, rubbing his face, trying to get the dream away.
Tommy sat up, put his feet on the ground and his head into his hands.
“Go back to bed,” he said groggily.
“Did you get scared?” she asked.
“No, I’m orright. Go back to-“
“Were you dreamin’?”
“Was it a bad dream?” Rose sat down next to him on the edge of the bed.
He looked over at her from between his hands.
“It’s just a dream, y’know?” Rose said, trying to put on the same voice Polly used when Rose herself had nightmares. “It can’t do anything.”
“Is that right?”
“Yea,” she said as confidently as she could. “You go back to sleep.”
He smiled at this.
“D’you want a story?” Rose offered.
“Lie down,” Rose instructed. “And close your eyes.”
After a moment, Tommy obliged, careful not to kick her when he lifted his legs back into bed.
“Close your eyes,” she repeated.
“Orright…” Rose thought deeply.
She’d never told a story before, but it sounded easy enough when Pol did it.
“Once upon a time…” that was the start, always, you couldn’t go wrong with that, “…there were loads of moles – close your eyes, I said.”
Tommy closed his eyes again.
“But the moles went on the Titanic,” Rose went on, when she was satisfied that he wouldn’t open them again. “And then it sanked. And all the people had to dig tunnels then. Because the moles were in the ocean. Digging tunnels for the fish.”
She watched Tommy on the bed, his eyelids fluttering as if he was trying really hard to keep them down.
“And they lived happily ever after,” she said quietly.