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Breaks the blank day

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As Colonna nerved herself to re-read the letter, she thought she saw the flash of a scarlet dress. Seven years ago: Valentine’s face tilted up to Macklin’s in the livid florescence of the corridor, then the reassuring print of the key in her hand and its jingle against the pennies in her pocket, the death that had stopped her, once and for all, thinking of it in terms of tragic consummation. Death was as arbitrary and meaningless as handing the poison-cupboard key to Pratt, pretending she’d picked it up by accident. As arbitrary and meaningless as life. She had thought her understanding of that was what had helped see her through this much of the war. Now she wasn't so sure.

Valentine had been shocked when Colonna had suggested she might, if she liked and she could square it with Macklin, continue to see both of them. Not shocked enough to fail to be funny about it―she grimaced even now at the impossible vision Valentine had conjured, of Colonna briskly packing her off to meet him, looking up her buses, lending her a hat or a scarf, laying on some special supper when she got home to cheer her up―but shocked all the same.

And now it was happening again, with Julie. If Valentine had been disquieted by the notion of a triad, Julie would be scandalized. Colonna cursed her inattention: she should have known as soon as Julie’s letters had started to refer, with a deliberately unstudied, almost derisive humour, to the officer who had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander and as good as offered a ship, but had chosen to remain Number One to the Captain Ericson he’d served with since ’39, who asked her out to dinner and spoke of practically no-one but Ericson, who at the merest allusion to the first chapter of the second book of Samuel (Colonna, whose education had been impeccably heathen, looked it up during a quiet night shift; it had been quite a stirring thing to read, standing in the pulpit of the dim hospital chapel) had confessed the truth of his love.

Colonna was thirty-four. It didn't seem as old as twenty-seven had. She’d been around. She’d been knocked back and thrown over. Her melodramatic response to Valentine’s desertion seemed to have happened far away, to a six-inch puppet dressed with the comical extravagance of a time before coupons. Pain would come later, but now she felt only a flat exasperation; how utterly ludicrous that Julie, none shrewder, none more frank, should have tumbled so completely for the dubious honour of being a queer’s Not Impossible She. That too was a thing from the time before, but it had seemed a plausible fate for Nurse Lingard, as self-absorbed as she was self-punishing. To have it happen to Second Officer Hallam, the strictest Wren in the world, was more in the line of a crude practical joke.

She began to crumple the letter in her hand, then desisted. She had thirteen minutes before she went on the ward. She took her writing-case from the locker by her bed and opened it into a makeshift escritoire on her lap. She pulled the pen from its loop and scrawled, Continental-fashion, 'Bridstow' and the date in the top right hand corner.  ‘My dear Hallam,’ she continued, ‘these touching lines evidently come from the full heart of the widow of a military man...’

Another affair to slough off delicately, affecting charming politeness; in peacetime Colonna might have wondered how many skins she could shed before she reached the raw, jumping flesh. But she had eleven and a half minutes before duty claimed her again; the blue-black words sped without blot or spot across the rough, porous, utility writing paper.