The hall, air fogged with the faint haze and steel-blue trails of cigarette smoke, is as gaudily decorated as austerity and rationing allows. A long table serves as a makeshift bar with a large bowl of fruit punch, made more lively by the addition of some liquor that Caroline suspects may well have been brewed in a bedpan, and medical staff buzz around it filling their cheap cut glass cups to the brim. She tastes hers and pulls a face even though it is her fourth. Faraday looks at her with a smile, still pink from their dancing. She smiles back over the rim of her glass and hopes she doesn’t look too coquettish. It wouldn’t do to give a man the wrong idea when he’s being kind and all she wanted was to get away from that millstone around her neck, Hundreds Hall, and dance for a few hours.
Caroline shakes away her thoughts about her whole horrid situation, and turns when Faraday points out that his colleague, Dr Graham, and his wife Anne are approaching. Her smile turns genuine when she sees the tall, blonde woman behind Anne Graham. Before introductions are possible, a screech of joy reaches over them all.
“Caroline? Oh my god! Caroline!”
“Brenda!” Caroline says, matching the blonde’s tone and grinning with delight.
Caroline is enveloped in a soft, warm embrace that tightens until she feels she might vanish into Brenda’s ample and well-supported bosom. She thinks for an instant that it would not be a disaster if she did.
She makes her excuses and Faraday wears an indulgent if slightly bemused smile as Caroline is dragged away to dance by Brenda. It’s a lively two-step and Caroline is soon warm and damp from perspiration. She can see tiny beads glistening on Brenda’s forehead and cheeks, welling up under her pale powder. Brenda notices Caroline’s gaze and her hands release Caroline and fly to her cheeks instead.
“Oh god I must look frightful,” she yells over the band. “Come with me to the Ladies’ will you?”
Caroline smiled and nods. She waves at Faraday who still watches from the side of the room with that octopus, Seeley, leaning in close and shudders at the thought of what Seeley and Faraday might be discussing. Then Brenda’s arm is linked with hers and she’s pulled away. Once free of the crowd, noise muffled by a couple of walls between them and the dance hall, Brenda leans in to the rust-spotted mirror over the once-white enamelled washbasin and pats at her cheeks and forehead with a handkerchief while Caroline leans her back against the closed door. For a few moments at least, the ladies’ room is theirs.
“So tell me about that respectable young doctor you’re seeing,” Brenda says, grinning over to Caroline and rummaging for her compact.
“He’s a family friend,” Caroline protests with a shake of her curls. “Brought me here out of kindness to get me away from that mausoleum.”
“Yes. That’s how it all begins, my love!” Brenda pauses in the act of patting more powder onto her pink cheeks to wag a finger at Caroline. Caroline smiles and looks away. “My husband started as a friend of the family. Now he’s part of the family.”
Caroline watches Brenda attend to her face for a few more seconds, thinking about the last time they sat on a rooftop alert for the orange and yellow flicker of flames. “Do you remember what you said on one of those nights sitting up on top of your house watching out for fires?” Caroline’s face drops into a serious frown, her natural expression. Brenda raises an eyebrow at her.
“Well I’m sure we both said all sorts of things. You’ll have to remind me.”
“You said,” said Caroline, “that you would never get married.”
“Well.” Brenda snaps her compact closed and turns to face Caroline. “Sometimes you just have to do the best you can with whatever life chucks at you. Don’t you?”
Caroline’s lips narrow at that and she turns away, reaching for the door handle. “I suppose one must live up to expectations in that department,” she says. “But I’m not what you’d call a ‘catch’. All the men my age seem to want is looks and money and I have neither.”
Brenda’s arm is around her shoulder and Caroline halts, afraid that the wrong word will send her into a fury or spiralling down into a display of emotion that would leave her embarrassed and apologising for weeks. She holds herself tall and blinks, steeling herself for hateful, soft words.
“Oh, do shut up, my darling girl. When did self pity ever get you what you wanted? Buck up!”
Caroline takes a sharp breath in and whirls around to face Brenda, ready to let her frustration fly at her old friend. But Brenda’s sudden giggle disarms her completely and in seconds she’s helpless with laughter.
For the second time, she’s pressed against Brenda’s warm, comfortable body. Caroline slides her arms around Brenda’s waist and sighs. “It’s too awful to contemplate,” she says at last. “I have to get away from here. Away from Hundreds. From everything. It’s impossible.”
“No it’s not,” Brenda insists softly, and kisses Caroline on the cheek. “You can’t see the woods for the trees right now, that’s all. Look, come home with me tonight. Telephone Hundreds and say you met an old friend from the fire watch, a respectable married lady, and you’re staying over.”
“Is your husband here too?” asks Caroline, a polite refusal forming on her tongue.
“Good lord no.” Brenda scoffs. “It will be just the two of us and my parents but they’ll be straight up to their beds as soon as we get home.”
“Well,” Caroline says with a light head, “I suppose that would be all right.”
Brenda and Caroline walk arm in arm back to the dance. Caroline murmurs to Brenda that she wants nothing more than to leave right away, go with Brenda to her home, and pretend that she never has to set foot in Hundreds Hall ever again. Brenda squeezes her arm.
“Better keep up appearances, girl. Find an eligible young man to dance with and drive your handsome doctor mad with jealousy.”
“Brenda!” Caroline feigns shock. “You’re terrible!”
Brenda winks and laughs and two young men approach, both looking hopefully at Brenda. Brenda catches one by the arm before either man even takes a breath to ask her to dance and nudges the other towards Caroline. Caroline barely looks at him as his hand clasps her waist and she’s guided onto the dance floor. She keeps her eyes on Brenda and carefully away from Faraday’s constant scrutiny. When her dance partner chats brightly to her, she returns only a vague smile and a slight nod.
The music finishes with the sombre strains of God Save the King. Caroline and Brenda, released by their partners, walk slowly over to Brenda’s parents’ table, leaning against one another as if both affected by the illicit liquor that supplied the insipid fruit punch with some backbone. As they get close enough to be seen through the crowd, their arms unlink from around each other’s waists. Faraday’s pale skin is flushed with mottled pink as if he too had danced until his feet ached.
“I’ll fetch our things from the cloakroom,” Faraday blurts, and walks away. Brenda raises her eyebrows at Caroline, who merely sighs.
“Well?” Brenda asks. “Will you tell him?”
Caroline nods at Brenda, and when Faraday helps Caroline into her coat she smiles at him, all tooth and sparkle. “My dear Dr Faraday! Isn’t it wonderful to reconnect with old friends? Brenda and I were in the fire watch together before I joined the wrens.”
“I thought it would be something like that,” Faraday says a little sourly. “Let’s get you safely home to Hundreds.”
“Oh! You have been so kind already in bringing me here. You needn’t trouble yourself with seeing me home too. Brenda has very kindly offered me a bed for the night. I can telephone Hundreds and let Betty know I’ll be back in the morning.”
“Ah. I see,” Faraday says with a brief nod. “I could drive you if—“
“Oh, there’s no need for you to stay up any later, Faraday,” interjects Graham. “I’m dropping Anne off home then driving Brenda and her parents back to Stratford. There’s room in my car for Miss Ayers if the ladies don’t mind squashing up.”
Faraday aims a dark look at Graham, but in an instant his face clears and he twitches a tight smile.
“Well, if it’s decided.” He looks at Caroline, who nods. “Goodnight, Caroline.”
“Goodnight. Thanks again for being so kind.”
Faraday waves with his hat at the little group then puts it on and walks stiffly away. Once he’s out of earshot, Brenda utters with a tiny giggle, “Oh my darling, did you see his face? So jealous. He’s besotted.”
“He is not,” Caroline replies, annoyance creeping into her tone, “and there is no more to say on the matter. Must all our conversation be about eligible bachelors?”
“Have it your way, but you could do far worse than snag a medical man utterly obsessed with you,” says Brenda with a shrug as Dr Graham pretends not to hear and Anne laughs.
From Lidcote, the drive to Stratford is uncomfortable yet Caroline dozes, turned half-sideways between the cold, hard car door and Brenda’s soft, perfumed warmth, and before long she’s out of the car and being led inside a house more modest than Hundreds in its design, yet far more opulent for the warmth of its welcome and the cheer of its understated, well-kept decor. As promised, as soon as Dr Graham has refused a nightcap and driven away, tea is made and drunk then Brenda’s parents kiss their daughter goodnight and instruct the young women not to stay up gossiping until dawn. Brenda yawns wide, hand barely able to cover her mouth. “I miss those days, you know,” she says with a rueful smile. “The fire watch days, I mean. I looked forward to long nights spent on the rooftops, the only light from the moon and the stars, you and me huddling under blankets with flasks of tea for warmth, scanning the blacked-out town, ready to leap into action at the slightest flare of orange. It felt almost romantic.”
Caroline smiles back. “I miss it too, I suppose,” she admits after a few seconds. “I felt as if I could do anything. The war... well. It was going to be my liberation. Is that bad? Is it terrible of me to see it that way? So many terrrible things happened that I suppose it must be.” Caroline’s smile fades and she looks down. Brenda reaches across the table and takes her hands. “I decided I would join the Wrens and learn useful things and not have to marry some approved gentleman for the sake of the Estate. Roddie could do all that.” Caroline looks up again in case Brenda is bored, but Brenda just nods once at her to go on. “You know I dreamed of going away?” Brenda shakes her head. “Far away I mean. Once I came into my money. America or Canada, I thought. Of course I didn’t know how to make it happen but I was set on it for a while.”
“What happened?” asks Brenda.
“Hundreds Hall ate it all up even before Mr Churchill called emigrants ‘rats’,” replies Caroline with a deep sigh. “But Hundreds Hall really is sinking like a torpedoed ship and poor Roddie is in no condition to manage the estate. I’d sell it all but mother would be devastated.”
“Would she though?” asks Brenda. “Have you asked her if she wouldn’t rather live in a nice warm, dry house with reliable electricity?”
Caroline falls silent and Brenda gets up to clear away the tea things. She holds out her hand to Caroline, who rises from her chair, kicks off her uncomfortable dancing shoes and picks them up in one hand. Her other hand slips into Brenda’s and clasps it firmly. Brenda leads Caroline upstairs into a large bedroom. “The guest room isn’t made up, I’m afraid. Do you mind awfully sharing?”
“Not at all,” replies Caroline. “We can pretend we’re up on the roof with our blankets again.”
Brenda laughs and hands Caroline a spare nightdress. “I should have made up a flask in case we got cold. Bathroom is across the hall. You go first.”
Caroline scrupulously scrubs her face of makeup and washes, then slips on the nightdress. It’s soft and billowy and smells of lavender. When she goes back across the hall into Brenda’s room, Brenda is already in bed, holding the covers back. Caroline slips in beside her, lying flat on her back, careful not to touch. But Brenda rolls over and puts her arm across the front of Caroline’s shoulders and her head beside Caroline’s on her pillow.
“Goodnight, love,” Brenda murmurs in Caroline’s ear. Caroline reaches for Brenda’s other hand between them and closes her eyes, feeling more at home than she has done since being called back to Hundreds to nurse her brother. She falls asleep to the rhythmic sound of Brenda’s soft, even breaths and dreams of a life that might yet be hers.