‘Yes, I know.’ He glanced at Marjorie, who’d made a brief movement. ‘Your husband told me. He was—’
‘Brave. You told me.’ Suddenly something snapped. It was her half-hooked garter, but the pop of it made her sit up straight, fists clenched in the thin fabric of her skirt. ‘Brave,’ she repeated. ‘They’re all brave, aren’t they? Every single one. Even you—or are you?’
She heard her mother’s gasp, but went on anyway, reckless.
‘You all have to be brave and noble and—and—perfect, don’t you? Because if you were weak, if there were any cracks, if anyone looked like being not quite the thing, you know—well, it might all fall apart, mightn’t it? So none of you will, will you? Or if somebody did, the rest of you would cover it up. You won’t ever not do something, no matter what it is, because you can’t not do it; all the other chaps would think the worse of you, wouldn’t they, and we can’t have that, oh, no, we can’t have that!’
Captain Randall was looking at her intently, his eyes dark with concern. Probably thought she was a nutter—probably she was, but what did it matter?
‘Marjie, Marjie, love,’ her mother was murmuring, horribly embarrassed. ‘You oughtn’t to say such things to—’
‘You made him do it, didn’t you?’ She was on her feet now, looming over the Captain, making him look up at her. ‘He told me. He told me about you. You came and asked him to do—whatever it was that got him killed. Oh, don’t trouble yourself, he didn’t tell me your bloody precious secrets—not him, he wouldn’t do that. He was a flier.’ She was panting with rage and had to stop to draw breath. Roger, she saw dimly, had shrunk into himself and was clinging to the Captain’s leg; Randall put an arm about the boy automatically, as though to shelter him from his mother’s wrath. With an effort she made herself stop shouting, and, to her horror, felt tears begin to course down her face.
‘And now you come and bring me—and bring me …’
‘Marjie.’ Her mother came up close beside her, her body warm and soft and comforting in her worn old pinny. She thrust a tea towel into Marjorie’s hands, then moved between her daughter and the enemy, solid as a battleship.
‘It’s kind of you to’ve brought us this, Captain,’ Marjorie heard her saying, and felt her move away, bending to pick up the little box. Marjorie sat down blindly, pressing the tea towel to her face, hiding.
‘Here, Roger, look. See how it opens? See how pretty? It’s called—what did you say it was again, Captain? Oh, oakleaf cluster. Yes, that’s right. Can you say “medal,” Roger? Mehdul. This is your dad’s medal.’
Roger didn’t say anything. Probably scared stiff, poor little chap. She had to pull herself together. But she’d gone too far. She couldn’t stop.
‘He cried when he left me.’ She muttered the secret into the folds of the tea towel. ‘He didn’t want to go.’ Her shoulders heaved with a convulsive, unexpected sob, and she pressed the towel hard against her eyes, whispering to herself, ‘You said you’d come back, Jerry, you said you’d come back.’
She stayed hidden behind her flour-sacking fortress, while renewed offers of tea were made and, to her vague surprise, accepted. She’d thought Captain Randall would seize the chance of her retreat to make his own. But he stayed, chatting calmly with her mother, talking slowly to Roger while her mother fetched the tea, ignoring her embarrassing performance entirely, keeping up a quiet, companionable presence in the shabby room.
The rattle and bustle of the tea tray’s arrival gave her the opportunity to drop her cloth façade, and she meekly accepted a slice of toast spread with a thin scrape of margarine and a delectable spoonful of the strawberry jam.
‘There, now,’ her mother said, looking on with approval. ‘You’ll not have eaten anything since breakfast, I daresay. Enough to give anyone the wambles.’
Marjorie shot her mother a look, but in fact it was true; she hadn’t had any luncheon because Maisie was off with ‘female trouble’—a condition that afflicted her roughly every other week—and she’d had to mind the shop all day.
Conversation flowed comfortably around her, a soothing stream past an immoveable rock. Even Roger relaxed with the introduction of jam. He’d never tasted any before, and sniffed it curiously, took a cautious lick—and then took an enormous bite that left a red smear on his nose, his moss-green eyes round with wonder and delight. The little box, now open, sat on the piecrust table, but no one spoke of it or looked in that direction.
After a decent interval, Captain Randall got up to go, giving Roger a shiny sixpence in parting. Feeling it the least she could do, Marjorie got up to see him out. Her stockings spiralled down her legs, and she kicked them off with contempt, walking bare-legged to the door. She heard her mother sigh behind her.
‘Thank you,’ she said, opening the door for him. ‘I … appreciate—’
To her surprise, he stopped her, putting a hand on her arm.
‘I’ve no particular right to say this to you—but I will,’ he said, low-voiced. ‘You’re right; they’re not all brave. Most of them—of us—we’re just … there, and we do our best. Most of the time,’ he added, and the corner of his mouth lifted slightly, though she couldn’t tell whether it was in humour or bitterness.
‘But your husband—’ He closed his eyes for a moment and said, ‘The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.’ He did that, every day, for a long time.’
‘You sent him, though,’ she said, her voice as low as his. ‘You did.’
His smile was bleak.
‘I’ve done such things every day … for a long time.’
The door closed quietly behind him, and she stood there swaying, eyes closed, feeling the draft come under it, chilling her bare feet. It was well into the autumn now, and the dark was smudging the windows, though it was just past teatime.
I’ve done what I do every day for a long time, too, she thought. But they don’t call it brave when you don’t have a choice.
Her mother was moving through the flat, muttering to herself as she closed the curtains. Or not so much to herself.
‘He liked her. Anyone could see that. So kind, coming himself to bring the medal and all. And how does she act? Like a cat that’s had its tail stepped on, all claws and caterwauling, that’s how. How does she ever expect a man to—’