by R.M. Graves
My Bill, he never holds my hand. So I don’t know why the old fool’s got me so tight now. After the show, walking up Oxford Street — or what Hitler’s left of it — he won’t let me go. Was it something happened in France that’s made him so clingy? The War’s been over a good few weeks now. I’m worried he’s heard something, from my mum, maybe. About my situation. There’s something angry in that grip.
It’s gone midnight and I’m fit for Uncle-Ned, but Bill he’s wide awake. Even more than usual if you ask me. He wants to see if Gillies is still there and I say don’t be daft, Bill, look at the place, London’s in ruins! But he won’t be told no, not these days.
And what do you know, not only is it still there — and some of the streets round it — but it’s even open. Like a beautiful lantern in the dark it is. Gillies, the café on the corner. All glass, in the American style. It’s where we met, Bill and I, six years ago. When we were pretending not to be teenagers. The day the war started. Probably the last time we held hands, too.
Well, we have to go in, don’t we? After all we’ve been through since.
I won’t lie, sitting at the bar in the steam and gleaming rosewood, like there’d been no war at all, it puts my head in quite a spin. Jim Gillies, he’s gone, and now it’s run by a yank. Nice boy. Scarred. But keeps himself smart. Crisp whites, and he doesn’t stop cleaning and buffing the place even though it’s quite empty. Except for him and us and a sad sort, sitting at a table all on her own. Poor thing, I daren’t wonder what keeps her out alone this time of night.
It’s strange how Bill and I wrote to each other every week while he was away, but now we don’t talk. Other than the day-to-day’s, you know. He’s never been the chatty type, but since he came home he has a look on him like something locked. Like a wardrobe. I know that sounds daft, but I wonder if he opened his mouth now, he’d spill all out.
Frightful nightmares, too. Just frightful. Eyes wide open, but it’s not me he sees. Quite gives me the collywobbles. I had my share of horror in the blitz – we all have – but it’s not about what he’s seen so much as what he’s done. I don’t want to know. Sometimes I look at his hands, and it makes me shiver. All I can do is hold him until he’s calm. So, between the how-do-you-dos, and the screaming, I haven’t been able to tell him the news.
He’ll find out soon, all right. I’m not showing yet. But I will, sure as eggs are eggs. I thought about spinning a yarn, you know, pretending he’s the father. But he isn’t. That honour belongs to a charming GI and too much sherry and a full-moon I believed to be my last. Also Bill’s last leave was over eight months ago, and there’s no arguing with that.
Lord, it’s like we’re on borrowed time. Will he stay with me? Perhaps I ought to write him a letter.
So we finish our tea in that lovely, charmed little place and Bill tries to get away without paying a tip! I can’t believe we spend more time discussing that than the things that matter. Then Bill tosses a penny onto the counter — I know, how rude — and slaps his hand down on it and looks at me with the saddest of smiles.
Do you know, we find Gillies? Quite remarkable. Not a scratch on it, not even a crack in all that glass. Practically had to drag Maureen up the street. West-End is rather badly scratched out, but there the cafe is, bold as brass as if the world can’t touch it. Typical bloody yanks.
No, that’s unfair. Just chance that’s all. It all comes down to chance.
Maureen is tired-out but restless, tonight. Fiddling with her clothes. Old Girl is stuffed full of recordings, too. Little loops that stand in for conversation. I sense a decoy or camouflage for something. But these days it’s in my nature, to see danger whether it’s there or not. That’s why they called me lucky. Or perhaps Maureen was always like this. Perhaps I was drunk on those rosy cheeks and I never cared to look. Christ almighty. I was just a bloody child when I met her, here.
Gillie caught one. The new owner is a decent bloke. We give each other The Nod. Looks like a naval gunner. Missing the top of his right thumb, always a giveaway, that.
A young woman sits on her own by the window. Still has her hat and coat on, and is staring into her cup like someone about to jump. Poor wretch.
This morning, I burned the letters Maureen wrote me. I’d carried them all the way across bloody France. Bloody France. How impossible those little glimmers of hope seemed. Fairy tales. Now they conjure the places where I read them, that’s all. Love letters and hell, aligned by chance.
Not just that. As I sit here — watching the yank polish a great urn to a mirror shine — I understand how chained I’ve been by those damned scraps of paper. If a woman writes to you that much, declares herself so openly, you are expected to return and marry, have children. You simply have no choice. It’s your duty.
Maureen gets on her high-horse about tipping the gunner. I have no idea why, I have my hand in my pocket to get the change when she starts. Then it hits me. A silent pop, straight to the gut. I’ve had enough of duty. Let happenstance dictate our fate one last time.
Heads I’ll stay with her. Tails I’ll leave.
My feet ache something rotten in these borrowed shoes. My tummy’s rumbling too. I got real sugar in a little bowl with my tea and don’t take sugar, usually, but when the bloke ain’t looking I’m going to scoff a couple of lumps. Maybe nick some for later. Wish I’d asked for milk now, except it’s probably powder anyway.
Then in comes this lovely couple. So sweet, he’s holding her hand and pulling out her stool. He’s so tall and a real gent, and she’s a real peach. Glowing she is.
I love people-watching, I don’t care what time of night it is. Rather be in here watching these beautiful folk, than back at home in our bed, listening to Mum’s snoring.
I know it ain’t done, and all, I mean a young girl sitting all on her tod this time of night, but I feel safe. The bloke who runs the place – I think he’s called Gene – he’s a gent all through. People-watching makes you sharp on stuff like that.
In pops a sugar lump and I suck it and get quite dizzy with it. How lovely this one little thing is, after a night waiting tables and having my bum pinched.
The couple sit side by side and don’t talk at all. She seems fidgety, her dress is too tight. The fella, well. He’s haunted like the rest. Still they got a quiet kind of togetherness about them that has me welling up and I miss my Fred something fierce, again. Even after all these years.
Another sugar lump, but I catch Gene’s eye, so I close my gob dead quick. Like butter wouldn’t melt, and bless him he just smiles. Look at how he flaps and folds them cloths, so expert and neat. This place is like a lantern and he’s the genie, polishing his own way out!
Then the sweet couple start up in a clipped, polite kind of row. Something about a tip. Gene shakes his head, he ain’t bothered. He’s cutting up a huge loaf and it don’t half make my tummy grumble. Then the gent, he flips a coin in the air and smacks it down on the counter. He gives Mrs Peach a queer kind of look. Flat mouth, hooded eyes. I have to look away. Gene cuts ham off the bone.
Then the damnedest thing. There’s the flap of a coat, the door tinkles open and shut, and the gent, he’s gone.
Mrs Peach, she’s still there. She’s blinking but she don’t look surprised.
“You alright, dearie?” I say. She looks at me for a second, then she puffs out this long sigh like she’s been holding it in all day. Then she leaves, too, without so much as a by-your-leave.
Then I fair jump out my knickers. Gene looms over the table, cloth folded over his arm like a butler. He bows and puts the biggest ham sarnie I ever seen smack in front of me. He folds his arms, and his smile, it quite takes his scars away.
Yes. He’s handsome when he smiles, I’d say.
R.M. Graves is a fiction writer and illustrator. His work has appeared in Interzone, Flash Fiction Online, Every Day Fiction and Urban Graffiti, among other places. He lives in London with his wife and two children and can be found on Twitter @Dream Buffet.