There were two of them waiting on the kitchen table when Leo returned. Helen had left everything ready. Her place was set at the table, and the makings for tea rested on the counter beside the cooker. A chipped blue willow-ware plate was covered with a tea towel, and the letters rested against it. Leo peeked under the cloth before doing anything else: a proper Cornish pasty. Heaven only knew how Helen had come by that treat, war-time rationing being what it was. Only after she had sniffed the wonderful meaty smell of the food did she turn back to the letters. The handwriting on the first was unfamiliar, and she put it to one side for a moment. The other, however, was addressed in a hand as familiar to her as her own. Leo contemplated it briefly before laying it to one side too. Food first; she lit the gas under the kettle.
"Aren't you going to read them?"
Leo spun round; Helen was standing in the doorway, her arms crossed.
"Helen," Leo said, as she crossed over to greet her with a quick kiss. "Did I wake you coming in?"
"No," Helen replied. "I was lying in bed reading."
"Not particularly," Helen said. "it's more the fact that it was my first day shift after a string of nights. I was dead on my feet when I got back and had a nap, so now I can't get back to sleep. How was your day? You're home awfully late."
Leo grimaced. "There was a flap on about the evacuation. They held meetings, which of course led to orders. I typed and when that was done, there were more meetings and more typing. I barely seemed to finish one set of orders before another set came down. Whoever said a war was won by fighting had no idea of the paperwork involved!"
Both women laughed briefly, but sobered quickly. Helen lifted the kettle from the hob when it began to sing, and heated the teapot by pouring a little of the hot water into it. She swirled this round a few seconds before emptying the pot. Two spoonfuls of tea leaves went into the bottom, before the pot was filled with water, its lid went back on, and a knitted cosy was fitted. Helen placed the pot on the middle of the table and sat in one of the chairs. Leo sat at the end of the table. There was silence as both women stared at the pot.
Helen sighed deeply. "I guess this will mean more wounded. The wards are full already."
"Maybe not," said Leo.
Helen looked up enquiringly.
"That was one of the orders," she explained. "No more wounded to be evac'd. Fighting men only." She smiled grimly at the horrified look on Helen's face. "I know - but that was the decision. And they've put a deadline on it. It's not just the army they're concerned about; they've lost a lot of ships too."
"Your friend Tom...." Helen's voice trailed off.
"Hardly a friend now," said Leo. "I hadn't seen him in years before we met again last month – and that was quite by chance."
"I know, but –"
"Yes, I know too, but there's no way of knowing. I don't have any access to those lists. He might be all right. Or he might be dead. I have no idea."
There was another brief pause, before Leo picked up the teapot. Automatically, Helen placed the tea strainer over the teacup. The pair moved with the synchronicity of long familiarity. The kitchen was tiny, crowded by the small table and two chairs that were squashed into one corner. As she moved to get another cup for herself, Helen brushed past Leo, but was stopped by Leo's hand on her wrist.
"At least you know your brother is safe, up north at Rosyth."
Leo bit into the pasty, savouring the spicy filling as she listened to Helen's movements behind her. Helen wasn't saying anything, but Leo knew her attention was focused on those letters - well one of the letters really. Their relationship had never quite regained the confidence it had had before her night with Joe. There had never been any question they would stay together; but that episode had unsettled them both. It had been a relief in a way when war was declared. They had given up the houseboat, leaving behind its associations, and taken a small flat in London. Helen had gone back to nursing full-time. Leo had joined the Auxiliary Services; her typing skills were being put to good use at the Admiralty. Both letters had been addressed to their old home in Mawley and forwarded to London; Leo recognised old Foxy Hicks' untidy scrawl beside the original address.
She opened the first envelope to a waft of sickly perfume. The single sheet of pale pink paper bore an elaborate script. Leo looked at it in surprise.
"Who is it from?"
Leo looked over at Helen with a wry smile. "Care to scandalise everyone?"
"It's an invitation from Elsie to her wedding. We could go together."
"She never landed Peter, did she?"
Leo looked back at the invitation. "No – some chap named Stephen." Leo handed the invitation to Helen and turned her attention to the second missive. It was a large well stuffed brown envelope that bore a foreign stamp. Carefully she tore the end and pulled out several sheets of paper. Dear Leo.... When she looked up again, Helen was no longer in the kitchen. That was tactful of her, thought Leo, but unnecessary. And, she thought regretfully, a sign of the uncertainties in their relationship since that episode with Joe. It was past time to put that to rest.
Leo quickly cleared the table and rinsed her dishes, before she made her way along the corridor to the small bathroom. There was only one in the house, shared by the occupants of three flats. She didn't linger; the bathroom was cold and damp. After brushing her teeth and a hasty wash, Leo joined Helen in their bedroom. It was furnished with twin beds which Helen and Leo had pushed together. The flat's chief attraction was the fact it had a proper lock on the bedroom door. They made a point of keeping it locked, just in case their landlady ever visited. Leo folded her clothes neatly on a chair before clambering into bed. Helen was curled on her side facing the wall. Leo snuggled into her back, curling her legs over Helen's, and reaching her left hand round until she could cup one of her lover's breasts. She knew Helen wasn't asleep.
"What did Joe's letter say?" Helen's voice was low and even.
"Nothing much and everything really. He talked about visiting the ranch and plans for his next book, and some radio show he did recently; it all sounded quite amusing. Most importantly, he's decided to learn to first aid."
"First aid – why is that important?"
"He's fallen in love with a nurse this time."
Helen shifted round in Leo's arms until the two were facing. She ducked her head, and rubbed her cheek against the crook of Leo's neck. Leo gave her back a little squeeze, before letting one hand drift down to her buttocks. She shifted to whisper in Helen's ear.
"I can understand the attraction. Nurses are very special."