Actions

Work Header

In No Man's Land

Work Text:

On a normal Thursday, Remus would have been at work, sitting in his cubby-hole at the factory in Bow adding up rows of incomings and outgoings in his neat ledger. But his boss, who had two sons in the Navy, was good about time off.

‘My cousin,’ Remus lied. ‘He’s only got twenty-four hours. I’ll be able to come in at lunchtime on Friday.’

‘Don’t worry, lad. Take the whole weekend.’

It was a chilly March afternoon, sunny but with sudden squalls of wind, and Remus was pleased at the excuse to wear his winter coat, which might, as far as anyone knew, be hiding a uniform. All the same, it certainly wasn’t standard army issue, and he was acutely aware of his civilian clothes as he got off the bus at Victoria. Stations were always thronging with soldiers, arriving or departing, making him feel even more conspicuous than usual in his suit and tie, in spite of the equalising coat on top.

The train leaving from Platform Two was taking a contingent of sailors to the dockyard at Chatham.

‘Oh, darling, be careful, won’t you?’ a young, pregnant woman was begging a tall, redheaded boy, who looked about fourteen. He shouldered his kitbag, vaguely caressed the nape of her neck and gazed into the distance, detached, his eyes slightly glazed, as if he were mentally already back on his ship.

Remus had seen that look on Sirius’s face often enough as he left; he understood that he would have had exactly the same expression, if it had been him leaving and Sirus staying behind. ‘You have to cut off. Otherwise you’d never bear to go back,’ Sirius had once confided. On the other hand, he certainly had no problems once he was in the thick of it. ‘When I’m flying, nothing else matters. It’s not about the war or the guns or the bombs. It’s just me and a machine, and a job to do.’

Of course, Sirius loved his Spitfire. His letters were filled with news about her maintenance and upkeep and general health. After reading his way through long descriptions of problems with fuel injections and the latest solutions, Remus sometimes thought, a bit sourly, that Sirius would have slept with his Spit if he could. All the same, he couldn’t say he found the details uninteresting: far from it. And he felt the plane had served Sirius well so far, which was more important than anything else.

A latecomer rushed across the station concourse to the Chatham train, and the sailors already on board cheered and booed, rousing Remus from his daydream. He watched the wives and sweethearts waving wildly from the platform as the train bore their men away. The young pregnant woman burst into tears and an older woman, presumably her mother, said, ‘There, there, love, it’ll be all right,’ and patted her back, leading her out of the station.

Remus, who was not going to guard the English coast or face the enemy, waited quietly by the barrier, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible; trying to pretend that he wasn’t patently the only man there under fifty not in uniform. He pulled his coat more tightly round himself.

The stationmaster announced, in a suitably lugubrious voice ‘The two-ten from Ramsgate will be approximately forty-five minutes late.’

Remus looked at his watch, sighed, and ambled over to the newsstand to buy a paper. The ancient man behind the counter didn’t even glance at him as he accepted his few coppers: Remus had the feeling that he would have spat if he had dared.

One of the women also waiting for the Ramsgate train hissed something which sounded like ‘Coward!’ to her companion when he returned to his position, paper under his arm.

Remus pretended not to hear, but as he took his place next to the barrier again he limped ostentatiously. It was a new habit, one of his few forms of defence; the visible disability made him feel better, stopped any criticism before it started.

Sirius always told him he was imagining things. ‘For goodness’ sake, it’s not 1914! Nobody’s going to pillory you if you’re not in uniform. You could be a running the damn factory, for all they know.’

He saved up the women’s invective to relay to Sirius later, even though he wasn’t quite sure what she had said. In the meanwhile, he tried to look as if he had a reserved occupation and the whole war effort depended on his input.

The train finally pulled in, and when Sirius got off, he was deep in conversation with another RAF officer, a tall, blond man who looked as if he had been born to wear uniform, just as Sirius did. They belonged to a different world, those demigods, and Remus was so jealous for a moment that his fists clenched involuntarily.

Sirius saw him waiting, and his face broke into a huge smile. He hastily said something to the blond officer, who grinned and thumped him on the back. Then, he strode through the barrier, adjusting his bag on his shoulder.

He said, ‘Hey, mate,’ and Remus said ‘How’s it going?’

‘Fine.’ Sirius touched his hand briefly, just the slightest of touches, but Remus’s skin tingled; it had been a long time. And Sirius’s big smile lingered, and he looked at Remus as if he were the one ray of hope in a doomed world.

They walked out to the station forecourt. Here, around Victoria, which was messy enough even in peacetime, with buses and taxis coming and going, you wouldn’t know there was a war on, if not for the sandbags piled high round the entrances, and the barrage balloons floating overhead. Remus hardly noticed them any more, except when Sirius came home and he tried to see London through his eyes.

Remus and Sirius had a war routine of sorts, evolved over Sirius’s meagre handful of leaves. They always caught a bus in Buckingham Palace Road, down to the Strand, managing to bag the front row seats at the top whenever they could. Of course, the bus routes weren’t predictable now, with so many roads damaged, but that was part of the fun: if fun it could be called.

In the old days, when they’d first come to London after school, they’d often hopped on buses at random, sat until the terminus looking at the sights of London, always finding something new to exclaim at. Now, the new sights were ominous, even heartbreaking; the scorched and scarred victims of the fire of ’41, the spaces that should hold beloved landmarks, now gone forever. Remus pointed out a burned-out house, where you could still see the ghosts of habitation: a bath suspended high above the street on a length of undamaged pipe, a bed smashed on the ground and half-covered with debris.

‘I keep thinking it could be the flat,’ he said, and Sirius replied laconically, ‘I don’t think our pipes are that solid.’

The buildings in the Strand looked largely intact at the point where they got off the bus, though farther down, the street was cratered by a huge raid. When they crossed over into Shaftesbury Avenue, the ravages were more obvious; jagged gaps between the buildings, many theatres closed, pathetic without their bright lights and photos.

‘It doesn’t look so bad when you see it from above,’ Sirius commented. ‘Especially if you’re bringing down the enemy.’ He gave a mirthless little laugh.

‘So,’ Remus said, ‘how’s it been?’

‘Well. Not too bad. Fair amount of action.’

Remus thought briefly of Sirius alone in his plane, dodging German fire, with only a parachute between him and death, then resolutely pushed the image away.

They passed the boarded-up facade of the Derbyshire Hotel at the corner of Leicester Square, and Sirius winced. ‘My dad must be a bit upset about that. He always eats there when he’s in London. Says it’s cheaper than the Savoy, and just as good. Oh, and that reminds me,’ he added. ‘Food. What are we doing about food?’

Remus had been hoarding rations for a week, ever since he’d known Sirius would be home: even double his meagre amount wasn’t a great deal, but it should be enough. ‘I’ve got plenty at home,’ he said. ‘Unless you want to eat out.’

‘You sure? They’ve given me some ration cards,’ Sirius said, fumbling in his pocket. ‘I’ll let you have them so you can get in extra for dinner.’

Remus stiffened. Bad enough to be the only able-bodied twenty-three year-old man in London not in uniform, bad enough not to be able even to volunteer to drive an ambulance or be an air-raid warden. But to be treated like a brave little woman keeping the home fires burning was too much.

‘No thank you,’ he said coolly. ‘I’ve got plenty for both of us.’

Sirius glanced over at him, his smile gone. ‘I bet you haven’t. Just take them, okay?’

‘No. Forget it. Let’s not spend your leave arguing about food.’

Sirius slipped his arm through Remus’s. ‘You’re right. Complete waste of time. Tell you what, we could go somewhere with music, if there is anywhere. Or to a pub. I haven’t had a decent pint in ages.’ He stopped and looked around, a bit confused by the new gaps and piles of rubble in the once-familiar square. ‘I thought we could drop in at the Three Jugs on our way home.’

Remus’s heart gave a painful, unexpected thump. He steeled himself and said, ‘The Three Jugs was bombed a couple of months ago.’ He didn’t add that ten people had been killed, including the barman, and he wasn’t going to.

‘Shit, I hate this!’ Sirius pounded his fist into his palm, scowling.

Remus was both impressed and alarmed by his performance. ‘Shush, Sirius! Don’t say it so loudly,’ he begged.

But Sirius wasn’t deterred: was he ever? ‘Why can’t the bastards just leave well enough alone? And why didn’t you tell me?’ he asked as an afterthought.

Remus wanted to say, ‘I didn’t tell you because that’s our favourite place gone. I didn’t tell you because I try to make my bloody letters cheerful. I didn’t tell you because you have more important things to worry about.’

Instead, he shrugged and said, ‘It must have slipped my mind. Would you like to go to the cinema?’

‘Not particularly. Let’s just get home,’ Sirius said.

He smiled at Remus again, and this time Remus smiled back, feeling that if a bomb fell on them right now he’d die happy, with Sirius at his side.

But then, as always, the perfect moment passed, soured by the glances of a curious passer-by, presumably wondering what the shabby civilian was doing with an RAF officer. Robbing him, perhaps, or trying to scrounge a shilling or two. Remus glared back.

‘Why are you limping?’ Sirius asked.

‘I’m not.’ Remus hastily put his weight back on his right leg. ‘Isn’t it a miracle? They didn’t get the Odeon,’ he prattled, trying to divert Sirius’s attention.

*

The flat was tidy, dusted; Remus’s mother insisted on a woman coming in ‘to do’ for the flatmates. ‘I know Sirius is away, dear, but it’s so easy for men to let things slide.’ Obviously, she had no idea about their relationship. ‘You’ll miss each other when you marry’ was as far as she had ventured. The war had been something of a blessing in disguise for them, Remus sometimes thought, because nobody would query the masculinity of a fighter pilot.

Mrs. Ross had come in specially that morning, though there wasn’t much to do. Remus had balked at asking her if she could see her way to doing something with the extra bacon, two real eggs and quarter pound of cheese he had tucked away, but she had considerately left a pint of milk in the larder, with a note: ‘Albert got extra for the baby, and we thought you and Group Captain Black could do with it.’ There was even tea, and some precious coffee in the cupboard.

They maintained two bedrooms, for the sake of appearances, and Mrs Ross had put a vase of flowers in the room that was ostensibly Sirius’s, to welcome back the weary warrior. Shockingly bright daffodils with their pale green stems and leaves, almost a parody of spring in the dingy room; big daisies, their yellow centres shedding the pollen that always made Remus sneeze. ‘Why don’t I get flowers?’ Remus asked, a bit resentful, and Sirius said, ‘We never sleep in here anyway.’

‘You better rumple the bed,’ Remus suggested, and Sirius said, ‘I can do better than that. Come here.’

Their mouths met, for the first time in what seemed like years but was really only four months, and after a few minutes’ clumsiness, familiarity and instinct took over.

Remus was relieved that Sirius obviously felt as nervous, as tentative, as he did. Sometimes, when he was depressed and lonely, he had visions of Sirius and other fliers coming down from the latest mission, high on adrenaline and terror, mindlessly fucking just for the sake of it, because life was short and violent and death was all around them.

When he’d brought up the subject of other men, during Sirius’s first leave, Sirius had laughed and said, ‘That’s the last thing I’d want anyone to know about. I’d be chucked out of the Air Force before you could say Charlie Tango.’ All the same, Remus often worried that in an all-male environment during a war, orientation didn’t really count for anything.

For a moment, he just held Sirius, breathing in the familiar smell of tobacco, the faintest hint of sweat, and a slightly citrusy smell that was the natural scent of Sirius’s skin.

‘You smell of oranges.’

Sirius broke away for a moment, and looked at Remus incredulously. ‘Oranges? You must be joking! We’re all going to die of scurvy before the bombs get us.’

‘But surely you get special rations?’ Remus, horrified, half sat up, and Sirius pushed him down again.

‘Well, we get fed. I just wish I could share some of the better food with you.’

‘I don’t need it.’ Remus felt uncomfortable under Sirius’s scrutiny, and covered his mouth with his again.

It had been a while, and it was fierce and quick, but the second time was slower, calmer, more languorous, and it seemed like both forever and no time at all before dusk started to fall. Remus stirred and said, ‘I’d better get the blackout up. The people in the flat opposite were fined last week.’

‘Wait a sec. It’s not quite dark yet.’ Sirius reached for his packet of Players, and tossed one to Remus. Before the war, he had used a monogrammed silver cigarette case and only smoked Sobranie. Now, like everyone else, he was reduced to less exalted tobacco.

They lay on the bed puffing away companionably. This was the way Remus always liked to picture him and Sirius, both naked, with no uniform or lack of uniform to come between them. They weren’t the officer who had survived the Battle of Britain, and been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross – ‘I wasn’t brave, Remus, I was just doing what I had to’ – and his shabby, penurious boyfriend who would spend the war adding up figures in a munitions factory, doing his tiny bit, at least, for the cause. They were just Remus and Sirius, like they’d always been.

Remus finally, reluctantly stubbed out his cigarette, got up and busied himself covering the windows in the flat, and Sirius stretched and said, ‘Shall we go for a walk round? Down Piccadilly? I won’t say look at the lights’ – again that hollow laugh – ‘but just for some fresh air?’

Remus often thought the blackout was a good thing, because at night you couldn’t see the ravages of the Blitz. Of course, the regulations were less stringent now than at the beginning of the war, when no lights were allowed to show at all, but even so, he had grown to love London in the moonlight: the mysterious silver buildings, the cars with their sliver of dipped headlight, the huge, fantastical outlines of buses looming in the distance. It was a city for illicit love as well, the prostitutes and their clients scuttling into alleyways, doorways, hidden by the all-enveloping darkness.

They locked the front door, though really there was no need, and set off towards Piccadilly. The wind had dropped, and Remus felt elated suddenly, because it was one of those spring nights when the moon, nearly full, suddenly seemed very close to earth, as if you could almost reach out and touch it. ‘You can’t turn off the moon,’ he told Sirius, who laughed indulgently, a warm laugh, not the brittle bark, and said, ‘You’re an idiot, Remus.’

Tonight, Piccadilly was busy. A group of American soldiers, each with a pretty girl on his arm, was sauntering along as if there were no war and London was just another stop on the grand tour. An illicit bar of light spilled out from a hastily-opened door, where several sailors, rather the worse for drink, erupted into the street, singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ discordantly.

‘They’re not going to be fit for much when their leave’s over,’ Sirius remarked, in that censorious tone he’d developed over the past two years. Remus was tempted to remind him of the many extravagant drinking sessions he and Sirius had partaken of with their best friends at school. Sirius had once taken an important exam with such a massive hangover that he had to leave the examination hall to be sick. He still managed a better mark than Remus; better even than James.

‘Have you heard from Potter?’ Sirius asked, reading his mind, as he so often did. ‘He hasn’t written for ages. I’m assuming someone would have told me if anything had happened to him. Anyway, he should be pretty safe out in the sticks.’

‘Oh, I meant to tell you. He and Lily were in London for the day last month, with Harry. They asked me specially to say hello to you.’

‘How’s our godson?’ Sirius asked eagerly, getting out his cigarettes, lighter at the ready.

Remus laughed. Harry was a holy terror, who had run away from his mother to chase the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, screaming and waving his arms. ‘You’ll love him, Sirius. Next time you have a decent leave, we can all get together.’

‘Old friends’ reunion,’ Sirius said. ‘Except for Pete, of course.’

He handed Remus a lighted cigarette, lit one for himself.

They neither of them spoke for a few minutes, but turned into Regent Street and started strolling towards Oxford Circus. The dark, opaque shop windows reflected them walking arm in arm, just two more anonymous men among the other strollers.

Sirius broke the silence. ‘It might be a while before all this is over.’ He took his arm from Remus’s and waved his hands extravagantly at the sky, where the sinister shape of a barrage balloon cast its shadow over the street. ‘Potter’s a jammy bastard, getting out of it so quick.’

‘Yeah,’ Remus said, noncommittally. ‘He mightn’t agree.’

‘I ‘spose. He won’t be playing football again, that’s for sure.’

The soft night was suddenly interrupted by the unearthly wailing of the air-raid siren. Remus was more used to the interruptions of civilian life than Sirius was; he took his arm again and dragged him the few yards down the road to Oxford Circus tube. Already, the air raid wardens were chivvying people down the stone and iron steps.

There was no pushing or shoving: everyone was usually fairly courteous, and Remus preferred the tube station to the shelter at the flat, where he was overly conscious of his civilian status. Now, far from feeling inferior next to Sirius, he stayed close to him, basking in his uniform, keeping his arm in his rather longer than he needed to.

They followed the crowds down one set of long, steep escalators, which always made Remus feel he was standing at a ninety-degree angle, then down another, to the bowels of the station, to the Southbound platform. In the tunnel, the lights, though not bright, still contrasted starkly with the silvery moonlight over London, and Remus slumped down next to Sirius against a wall. Sirius looked tired, Remus thought, and realised that there were new lines in his forehead, and his beautiful, sensitive mouth was turned down.

He felt a surge of love for him, and a sour anger towards the bloody Germans who had interrupted their evening, curtailed Sirius’s precious few hours. They could be here until dawn, he reckoned, if this was a typical raid.

Sirius, as if overcome, closed his eyes, and Remus continued to watch him.

A train clattered into the station, stopped, disgorged passengers who took up their places among the people already waiting for the raid to end. The tubes could get uncomfortably full. A family group on the platform next to Remus had spread out a rug, as if they were going to have a picnic, and were playing cards. Remus couldn’t recognise the game: it seemed to be a cross between Whist and Canasta. The mother took out a thermos and poured tea into plastic cups. It might as well have been gin, because the group started getting raucous, and a young girl of about sixteen squealed loudly whenever she lost a hand, which was frequently.

Other people looked on indulgently, but Remus felt the usual anger rising in him. How dare that stupid girl shriek so! She’d wake Sirius, and he was so tired, so in need of rest...

At one in the morning, the all-clear sounded. The family packed up their cards, their rug, their thermos, fast and efficiently, obviously used to the routine. They must live in one of the warren of flats off Oxford Circus, behind the shops.

‘Sirius.’ Remus shook him gently, but Sirius’s eyes were already open, and he stood up, stretched and remarked, ‘You know we were talking about food earlier? I’m bloody ravenous.’

Remus had a pang of conscience. He shouldn’t have spoken so coldly to Sirius about his rations: he should have taken the proffered cards and gone to the grocer’s at the bottom of their road, bought some bread to go with the cheese in the fridge, perhaps a bottle of the cheap wine saved for favoured customers. The grocer’s wife was one of the only people in the neighbourhood who looked Remus in the eye, smiled at him, treated him like a human being.

Far too late: they’d be closed. Still, they could make do with the hoarded stuff at home, and perhaps in the morning they’d have time to go to the Corner House in the Strand, for a big breakfast, or what passed for a big breakfast now, before Sirius’s train left.

*

Back in the flat, Remus bustled round the tiny kitchen, making tea, frying bacon and the two eggs, setting the precious cheese in place of honour on the table. When they’d finished every scrap, Sirius gulped down a second cup of tea, then took a swig from a hipflask, which he handed to Remus.

‘Thanks.’ The brandy was smooth, and after Remus had savoured it, the room seemed to mellow out, and the yellow walls looked warm and homely.

‘Good stuff, isn’t it?’ Sirius said. ‘I got it from one of my men. Chandler. He sneaked about ten bottles from his dad’s cellar. I should’ve done the same at Reg’s funeral, while everyone was bawling in the drawing-room, but it didn’t seem right somehow.’

‘Is Chandler the blond guy you were on the train with?’

Sirius’s face shut down. ‘No. Chandler’s had it.’ He didn’t say any more, but took another, bigger swig from the flask before offering it to Remus again.

Remus drank, though his hand suddenly looked strange when he glimpsed it out of the corner of his eye. He could smell burning. A bomb must have fallen without warning, and perhaps London was on fire again.

And then, he was flat on his back, looking up at the ceiling, Sirius kneeling beside him, his grey eyes wide and worried.

‘For God’s sake, Remus.’

Remus tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. ‘Hey. Sorry, sorry. Can I have some water?’

He wondered what Sirius was doing there, or maybe it was just a dream.

Sirius got up warily, and was back a few seconds later with a full glass. He cradled Remus’s head in his lap and held the glass to his lips. ‘Sorry,’ Remus said again.

‘Stop saying that! There’s nothing to be sorry for,’ Sirius said, sounding somewhere between angry and distressed, a tone Remus knew all too well.

‘Why are you here? I thought you were in Kent.’

‘Just rest for minute, okay?’ Sirius opened Remus’s mouth gently, popped in a flat pill and held the glass to his lips again. ‘Swallow that. Bloody lucky I was here.’

Remus remembered. ‘Oh. Your leave. I’m spoiling your leave. I didn’t forget to take my medicine, you know.’

‘I never thought you had. Well, unless you were so excited about seeing me again,’ Sirius said, in a light, teasing tone that didn’t quite succeed in masking his concern.

‘That’s probably part of it,’ Remus said, suddenly weary, as if he hadn’t slept for about a year. His limbs felt heavy and not quite comfortable, but he could have nodded off exactly where he was, on the hard, red-tiled floor, with his head still resting in Sirius’s lap.

‘Hey, you can’t stay there, Remus. Come on.’ Sirius gently lifted him into a sitting position. ‘Can you stand up?’

Remus was indignant. ‘Of course I can!’ He scrambled to his feet, and the room lurched sickeningly. He clutched at a chair with one hand, and Sirius with the other, and Sirius led him slowly back to his bedroom.

‘We might as well christen both of them,’ Sirius joked. ‘Let’s not give Mrs Ross anything to gossip about, okay?’

‘Okay. But I don’t have flowers.’

‘Never mind about the flowers.’

Sirius stripped off Remus’s clothes and manoeuvred him under the covers. ‘Damn it, man, you look so skinny but you’re almost impossible to shift.’

He took off his uniform, that bone of contention, not dropping it on the floor this time but draping it carefully over a chair. ‘I’ll need to press it tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘Don’t let me forget.’

‘I won’t.’

Remus wanted to reach out, to be engulfed in Sirius’s lean, hard body again, but he could do no more than lay his head on Sirius’s chest, and sigh and go to sleep. Just before he plunged into darkness, he thought, a bit bitterly, ‘What a bloody waste!’ If there was a God, He could have been a bit kinder. But then, He was probably busy with weightier matters.

*

When he woke the next morning, Sirius was already up, listening to the BBC on the wireless in the sitting room. Remus could hear the drone of the newscaster through the open door.

‘This is Alvar Liddell, reading the news. German casualties have been high over the past few hours...’

‘Great at boosting morale, isn’t he?’ Sirius said. He’d set up the ironing board by the window, and was standing in his underpants, just finishing off the cuffs on his shirt. ‘My mother would be proud of me. Or rather, the housekeeper would. I don’t think my mother can tell one end of an iron from another.’

‘I’m sorry about last night,’ Remus said.

‘We’ve been there, mate. It’s okay. It’s hardly as if you can help it, is it?’

Sirius switched off the iron, leaving his shirt draped over the ironing board, and came over to put his arms round Remus. ‘Hey. We could make up for lost time.’

‘But your train – ’

‘Isn’t for three hours.’

‘I wanted to go and have breakfast at the Corner House,’ Remus remembered, and Sirius grinned, his wicked grin that Remus loved so much, and said, ‘Let’s work up an appetite then.’

Remus was still feeling shaky; the aftermath of a seizure could last for days. He nevertheless concentrated fiercely on Sirius, his soul mate, his other half. It was always like the first time now, he thought, because it might so easily be the last; though it was probably his sickness making him so soppy, he reprimanded himself. All the same, he looked directly into Sirius’s grey eyes, dark with desire, and was certain he saw his own feelings reflected back at him.

Sirius said, ‘I love you, Remus. You know that, don’t you? Whatever happens?’

Remus’s heart plummeted. ‘Nothing’s going to happen. Nothing.’

‘Of course it won’t! I just feel like saying it occasionally. In the circumstances. Aren’t you going to say it, then?’

‘I love you too,’ Remus muttered. Suddenly awkward, he reached for his watch and said, ‘We better go now. You need a decent meal before you leave.’

‘Yes, Mum. Now, don’t get all huffy and offended again. I didn’t mean that.’

Remus cuffed him. ‘I bloody well hope not!’

Sirius got up, put on his immaculately-pressed uniform, and with it his rank, his sobriety, his air of being so profoundly familiar yet so strange.

*

It was colder today, no longer sunny, and gusts of rain rode on the wind sweeping rubble down the Strand. In the Corner House, by mutual consent, they got a table well away from the window.

The huge room with its tables decked in immaculate white cloths was almost empty, awaiting the midday crowds. Sirius said, ‘My mother would have a fit to see me here. Well, my mother’d have a fit to see me anywhere but the Ritz.’

Remus examined the menu. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime, isn’t it? Anyway, we had breakfast for dinner last night, so we can branch out.’

‘And if your rations won’t stretch to it, I probably owe you some,’ Sirius said.

They ordered chips, sardines on toast, and a pot of tea for two. Sirius’s uniform and DFC obviously commanded enough respect to warrant an extra spoonful of tea: it was satisfyingly strong and plentiful.

They ate in silence. Remus reflected, with a pang, that Sirius probably never did have enough, probably filled the gaps with the dead Chandler’s vintage brandy, and when that ran out, with something perhaps less salubrious. He nearly lost his own appetite thinking about it, and offered Sirius his last few chips, which Sirius refused.

‘You must make sure you eat properly, Remus. I know it’s not exactly easy at the moment, but last week...you kept half your rations for me, and I’m sure that’s what went wrong. It’s important, you know it is. The doctor said – ’

‘I know what the doctor said,’ Remus snapped.

Sirius shrugged. He motioned for the nippy, ordered cakes, scones and more tea, and they smoked a couple of Remus’s roll-ups.

Even in the middle of the big space, it was warm and cosy at the table, with the muted light and the sound of the rain now falling relentlessly outside. Remus finished his last drop of tea and wished they could stay here forever. It would be their haven, their refuge. Sirius wouldn’t need to risk his life in the skies above Germany; Remus wouldn’t have to cope with his constant, impotent rage and frustration at being unable to fight.

He imagined a camera panning out, showing them alone in the restaurant, two tiny figures sitting at their table, smoking. And the camera would move back and back, out through the window and into the Strand, further still, until London was left behind, back as far as Dover, across the Channel to France and then Italy. And until the Germans were defeated, however long that took, he and Sirius would be sitting here, invisible, safe and protected.

But the room was rapidly filling up with other customers now, and Sirius was getting restless, tapping his foot, gesturing for the bill. Well, he had a life to go back to, Remus reminded himself: his Spitfire, and his men, the exhilaration of battle and the bittersweet relief of every landing. He had a war to fight.

*

At Victoria, the train was already in. Sirius, his eyes predictably glazed, like the young sailor’s yesterday, put his hand on Remus’s shoulder and said, ‘Well, goodbye. I’ll write, okay?’ And then he was gone, swallowed up in a group of other pilots, including the tall blond man.

Two women in headscarves stood gazing after them. ‘I’m so worried this was an embarkation leave,’ the darker one remarked.

The other woman replied, ‘The twenty-four hour leaves always are, aren’t they? Mark my words, they’ll be off to Africa in the morning.’

‘I just wish they were allowed to say,’ the first woman answered, and the other one shushed her. ‘Let’s not talk about it. You never know who might be listening.’

Remus felt a chill of shock. He wanted to shake both women, tell them they were stupid bitches, that they were wrong: perhaps their men were going to be sent abroad, but nobody else was, and certainly not Sirius. Instead, he took a deep, calming breath and made his way blindly out of the station, without waiting for the train to draw away. By next week, he thought, Sirius would probably be at the other end of the world, and he might never see him again.

‘You could have bloody told me,’ he said out loud. He walked a few yards back to the taxi rank, out of the rain, and fumbled to roll a cigarette.

An old derelict, obviously assuming Remus was a fellow-lunatic, lurched towards him hopefully, holding out his hand. Remus dropped sixpence into it, barely even registering what he was doing.

He threw away his cigarette half-smoked, and ventured into Buckingham Palace Road. There was a bus stopped in traffic and he hopped on and sat downstairs at the back, staring unseeing out of the window, letting it take him wherever it might happen to go.

End