‘At least the f**king lion spoke English,’ he muttered, sitting up. ‘Jesus, now what?’
It occurred to him that it might be a good time to stop cursing and start praying.
London, two years later
She’d been home from her work no more than five minutes. Just time to meet Roger’s mad charge across the floor, shrieking ‘MUMMY!,’ she pretending to be staggered by his impact—not so much a pretence; he was getting big. Just time to call out to her own mum, hear the muffled reply from the kitchen, sniff hopefully for the comforting smell of tea, and catch a tantalising whiff of tinned sardines that made her mouth water—a rare treat.
Just time to sit down for what seemed the first time in days, and take off her high-heeled shoes, relief washing over her feet like seawater when the tide comes in. She noticed with dismay the hole in the heel of her stocking, though. Her last pair, too. She was just undoing her garter, thinking that she’d have to start using leg-tan like Maisie, drawing a careful seam up the back of each leg with an eyebrow pencil, when there came a knock at the door.
‘Mrs MacKenzie?’ The man who stood at the door of her mother’s flat was tall, a dark silhouette in the dimness of the hall, but she knew at once he was a soldier.
‘Yes?’ She couldn’t help the leap of her heart, the clench of her stomach. She tried frantically to damp it down, deny it, the hope that had sprung up like a struck match. A mistake. There’d been a mistake. He hadn’t been killed, he’d been lost somehow, maybe captured, and now they’d found hi—Then she saw the small box in the soldier’s hand and her legs gave way under her.
Her vision sparkled at the edges, and the stranger’s face swam above her, blurred with concern. She could hear, though—hear her mum rush through from the kitchen, slippers slapping in her haste, voice raised in agitation. Heard the man’s name, Captain Randall, Frank Randall. Hear Roger’s small, husky voice warm in her ear, saying ‘Mummy? Mummy?’ in confusion.
Then she was on the swaybacked davenport, holding a cup of hot water that smelt of tea—they could change the tea leaves only once a week, and this was Friday, she thought irrelevantly. He should have come on Sunday, her mum was saying, they could have given him a decent cuppa. But perhaps he didn’t work on Sundays?
Her mum had put Captain Randall in the best chair, near the electric fire, and had switched on two bars as a sign of hospitality. Her mother was chatting with the Captain, holding Roger in her lap. Her son was more interested in the little box sitting on the tiny piecrust table; he kept reaching for it, but his grandmother wouldn’t let him have it. Marjorie recognised the intent look on his face. He wouldn’t throw a fit—he hardly ever did—but he wouldn’t give up, either.
He didn’t look a lot like his father, save when he wanted something badly. She pulled herself up a bit, shaking her head to clear the dizziness, and Roger looked up at her, distracted by her movement. For an instant, she saw Jerry look out of his eyes, and the world swam afresh. She closed her own, though, and gulped her tea, scalding as it was.
Mum and Captain Randall had been talking politely, giving her time to recover herself. Did he have children of his own? Mum asked.
‘No,’ he said, with what might have been a wistful look at wee Roger. ‘Not yet. I haven’t seen my wife in two years.’
‘Better late than never,’ said a sharp voice, and she was surprised to discover that it was hers. She put down the cup, pulled up the loose stocking that had puddled round her ankle, and fixed Captain Randall with a look. ‘What have you brought me?’ she said, trying for a tone of calm dignity. Didn’t work; she sounded brittle as broken glass, even to her own ears.
Captain Randall eyed her cautiously, but took up the little box and held it out to her.
‘It’s Lieutenant MacKenzie’s,’ he said. ‘An MID oakleaf cluster. Awarded posthumously for—’
With an effort, she pushed herself away, back into the cushions, shaking her head.
‘I don’t want it.’
‘Really, Marjorie!’ Her mother was shocked.
‘And I don’t like that word. Pos— posth— don’t say it.’
She couldn’t overcome the notion that Jerry was somehow inside the box—a notion that seemed dreadful at one moment, comforting the next. Captain Randall set it down, very slowly, as though it might blow up.
‘I won’t say it,’ he said gently. ‘May I say, though … I knew him. Your husband. Very briefly, but I did know him. I came myself, because I wanted to say to you how very brave he was.’
‘Brave.’ The word was like a pebble in her mouth. She wished she could spit it at him.
‘Of course he was,’ her mother said firmly. ‘Hear that, Roger? Your dad was a good man, and he was a brave one. You won’t forget that.’
Roger was paying no attention, struggling to get down. His gran set him reluctantly on the floor and he lurched over to Captain Randall, taking a firm grip on the Captain’s freshly creased trousers with both hands—hands greasy, she saw, with sardine oil and toast crumbs. The Captain’s lips twitched, but he didn’t try to detach Roger, just patted his head.
‘Who’s a good boy, then?’ he asked.
‘Fith,’ Roger said firmly. ‘Fith!’
Marjorie felt an incongruous impulse to laugh at the Captain’s puzzled expression, though it didn’t touch the stone in her heart.
‘It’s his new word,’ she said. ‘ “Fish.” He can’t say “sardine.” ’
‘Thar … DEEM!’ Roger said, glaring at her. ‘Fitttthhhhh!’
The Captain laughed out loud, and pulling out a handkerchief, carefully wiped the spittle off Roger’s face, casually going on to wipe the grubby little paws as well.
‘Of course it’s a fish,’ he assured Roger. ‘You’re a clever lad. And a big help to your mummy, I’m sure. Here, I’ve brought you something for your tea.’ He groped in the pocket of his coat and pulled out a small pot of jam. Strawberry jam. Marjorie’s salivary glands contracted painfully. With the sugar rationing, she hadn’t tasted jam in …
‘He’s a great help,’ her mother put in stoutly, determined to keep the conversation on a proper plane despite her daughter’s peculiar behaviour. She avoided Marjorie’s eyes. ‘A lovely boy. His name’s Roger.’