'I'll be all right, I'll be all right,' I kept telling Arthur. He fretted round me like a mother. He fetched tea, then sat close, watching my hand trembling the cup up to my chin. I had to put it down before too much was spilt. He brought a cloth, gently wiped it round my face. He then placed the cup in my hand again. This time his hand, for once steady as a rock, enfolded mine, bracing it until the warm sweet drink was safely in my mouth.
'Bit of a turn-round, eh, Arthur?' I said. I wasn't lucky, I was pathetic. Years of war, all those bombed-out people who could joke and smile at me with a steady gaze just after they'd had everything wiped out, and here was I, shaking so much that an old shell-shocked veteran had to help me get tea to my lips.
'Trust me, eh, Arthur, to get killed when the war's nearly won. Funny, really, when you look at it like that. Don't you think it's funny? Eh, Arthur, do you think it's funny?'
He had to help me to bed, walking me up the stairs -- I was an invalid.
'I heard someone call my name. Just before the blast someone called me. Who was it, d'you think? Do you think it could have been Auntie Dorothy or my little brother Jimmy, warning me, you know, from beyond?' I didn't ask him if he thought it was Michael seeing me in the street, although I wanted to. But Arthur was tucking in the bedclothes and plumping pillows that still had an improper whisper of Michael Roberts on them. I couldn't do up the buttons on my nightdress, my fingers were all quivering thumbs. 'Come on, Queenie, pull yourself together,' I said. Arthur, sitting me on the edge of the bed, carefully did them up for me. 'Thank you,' I told him. He tucked me in, swaddling me tight enough for an anxious baby. Then, lowering his head, he slowly moved towards me. And I knew he was going to kiss me. But he was going to kiss me on the mouth. I turned my head to the side. He hovered, fearful as a lover gone too far. Softly, slowly, his lips opened.
'I would die if anything happened to you,' he said, one careful word at a time.
'Arthur, you spoke.' His voice, deep like Bernard's, was posh as the BBC. I was as stunned as if the wardrobe had told me it could take no more clothes. 'You spoke. You can speak.' I waited, wanting him to say something else. Talk to me. All those things he'd seen he could tell me now. Explain how it was for him. What he felt, what he thought. Recite me a poem, perhaps. But he didn't -- he just leaned forward again, this time to kiss my forehead. And I couldn't help it -- I started to sob. Bring me back the blinking chiming clock, the knitting needles going clack, clack, clack, and Bernard pulling his chair closer to the wireless before giving me a tut. I had had enough of war. Come on, let's all just get back to being bored.
'Don't leave me,' I told Arthur. I opened the covers for him to get into the bed with me. But he tucked them back, then pulled the chair up beside me and sat down. Silently.
It was in bewilderment that Hortense walked from the place.
Clutching her bag, her head held high. Four strident steps she took
before she stop to look about her. Dismayed, she stand, fingers
trembling at her mouth. She change direction for two steps. Then stop
once more. She look up the street one way, then down the street the
other. A paper drop from her hand on to the ground. She stoop to pick
it up. Then bump against a big man who call at her, 'Oi, watch where
you're going.' And the paper slip from her again. She chase it.
Struggling with the clasp from her handbag she stuff the paper in
before she start anew. Four paces this way then two paces the other. I
call out to her, she see me. All at once this woman finally know which
way she is going. Anywhere that is away from me. Tripping along the
road I try to keep a steady course beside her.
From Small Island by Andrea Levy. Copyright Andrea Levy 2004. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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