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Rough Music (Chapter One)

We are standing, Pete and I, next to the closed façade of Aldwych station. There, in the distance, is Trafalgar Square, the crowds already massing around the fountains and beneath the column. I turn and smile but Pete isn’t looking at me; his eyes are fixed above us, at a plane that is looping the loop. As we both watch, it climbs higher and higher, emitting flourishes of coloured smoke.

Coo. Hark at me. I sound like Pathé News. (“Here, on this day in spring, in this beleaguered city…”) I used to write yards of this stuff; long skeins of it used to come thumping off the press, like wallpaper. I can still hear it clattering in my chest, and I can smell it, too. I’d lift the printed pages up and push my nose into the folds. Delicious, it was, all soft and warm, like bed linen.

Alright. I know. Prolix. But listen. This, this moment – me and Pete both puckering upwards at a plane doing a victory roll – is the beginning of everything. It all starts here.

What I remember is this:

London smells of dust and cabbages. The sky is so blue that it makes me want to laugh. There was a thunderstorm the night before and there are “people”, Pete says (he leers uncomfortably; he snuffles downwards, looking at his shoes), who had leapt out of bed, sure that the bombing had started all over again. Now we are in the middle of what feels like a fête. Already, paper trumpets and party hats have been left underfoot. Outside Barratt’s the boot makers, a woman in an apron made of union flags is attempting to dance the tango. Her husband, a fainthearted and, frankly, flummoxed looking little man (too much?) is flailing (ha!) along in front of her while an accordionist plays “South of the Border”. All well and good. But just glance over to your right and there is St. Clement Danes. Its exterior is intact but it has been charred and hollowed out and left there like a box that’s too damp for the bonfire. Bush House, meanwhile, its columns and arcade, has endured a V1 attack. Five WAAFs were sucked out of the window. Someone stepped onto the pavement and was sliced in two by a sheet of glass.

How do I know all this? Because Pete tells me. It’s the first thing he tells me. He has a dour face, Pete, stolid and doughy like a donkey’s. He’s wearing utility clothing: a brown, single-breasted suit that has no buttons on the cuffs. His shoes are scabbed and blistered. He takes my hand, grips it and says,

“Look, Anthony.”

St.Clement Danes. I know exactly what he’s doing. Once, at a public meeting, he had started to complain about people whose minds, he said, were “all trinkets and gewgaws”. What he’s doing now is, he’s directing my attention. He knows that I have a notebook with me. I’m saying “Gawd lummie” and shaking my head but what I really notice is the way his hand is shaking when he pulls it away. There’s a persistent flicker, a swift breeze passing over water, and he puts it back, hastily, into his trouser pocket. I’m aware, too, of the difference in our appearance. I’m in the uniform of an officer of the Fleet Air Arm. I am putting it this way deliberately: I look both plausible and implausible, like a film actor. My buttons are polished, there’s a peaked cap on my head, my hair’s brylcreemed and I have a new moustache, a thin line marrying my upper lip. (Whenever I look in the mirror I think: I would.) The tightness of Pete’s suit, the way that it pulls backwards at his shoulders, gives him a quasi-military bearing, but it’s shabby, too. He’s embarrassed, is what it is.

And then the plane goes over. Still talking about Bush House, Pete steps backwards. He holds on to a window ledge and, weirdly, starts to wave. It’s an instinctive, ambiguous gesture and, embarrassed, he goes to pat or stroke his hair. He had wanted to run, I realise. I try to help. Loudly, I say, “It’s alright, mates, it’s one of ours” and raise a laugh.

But am I, though? Trying to help, I mean. Partly. But, partly, I can’t resist. I’m responding to his earnestness; to all that fucking authenticity. He hasn’t laughed and now his face is starting to congeal. And, yes, alright: he’d been an ARP. (Outside Bush House, there’d been flesh in the trees.) His mother died in a bombing raid. Poor Pete. He used to have to go and get injections in his arse. But still and all, he makes me itchy. This is what gravitas does to me. I lurch - I do a standing skip - and then I start making wise cracks. I want to ruffle his hair; to grab his cheeks and waggle them. Instead, I step into the road and say,

“Come on.”

I’ve had a nod from Derek at The Clarion that, if I can make it colourful enough, he might publish a piece by me. I said to myself (this was in Fleet Street, up by Hancock’s the chemist): I am a camera. Who was I trying to kid? I’m twenty years old. Corsets are skimpier this year. It’s something to do with military supplies. They’ve lost their… whalebone, is it? Their stays? Whatever it is, a woman’s curves are more approximate: rhomboid, sometimes, or else oblong. Shampoo is scarce. Women are rolling their hair up so that it looks like something in the oven that has failed to rise; on either side they have what look like spaniel’s ears. But still: they are delicious. There’s a confident swagger, yes, but also a lubriciousness about the shades of lipstick that they wear: Red Feather and Cinnabar. They aren’t fragrant, it’s true, but do I care? And, yes, alright, it’s all very hearty. A group of women are doing the hokey cokey outside the picture dealers. Others are waving and grinning. But I persist in thinking, or hoping, that there’s something subterranean to be gleaned (to be rooted for) in all of this.

Of course, this isn’t an angle that I would want to share with Pete. I’m still aware of his disapproval. I take my lighter out, a silver, monogrammed affair that, in those days, you would have called pound noteish. I can see that he’s studying it. I say,

“We all have our significant dead.”

His eyes flicker away from me.

“I’m sorry.”

I do a half-shrug; a coy tilt of the shoulders.

“It doesn’t matter.”

I light a cigarette for both of us. Outside the florists, there’s an advert for Players cigarettes: a graceful line of smoke arching over a resting hand. It’s a kind of archetype in that it represents a world of ease and charm that coexists, in the popular imagination, with an officer’s disdain for danger. I find that I’m looking at my own hand, and at my cuffs, comparing them. But no, it won’t wash, will it? We are, the two of us, from the East End. What does urbanity, even a faux urbanity, have to do with any of that? I say,

“So how’s the factory?”

It’s Pete’s turn to shrug.

“The same,” he says. “All balls and bang me arse.”

I roar.


A truck bounces past. It’s full of cheering boys and girls in uniform. One of the girls has spotted me and now she does a double zulu click, a gesture that causes Pete to brush a hand through his hair in exasperation. Brusquely, he nods at my tunic pocket.

“Shouldn’t you be noting all this down?”

I tap my forehead.

“It’s all in here,” I say.

One-upmanship, extending even to the business of the lighter, which, if you want to know the truth, was somebody’s husband’s. (Sorry, Ann.) Not just one-upmanship. A sly sort of satire, too (cheer up, you bastard), as well as an attempt to win him over. Strangely, Pete seems to find what I’ve just said endearing. Not so strangely: I’ve always been a pain in the arse. I charged, headlong, into the recruiting office, sure, despite my background, that the Fleet Air Arm would have me. I was chirpy; cocky and scrappy. He says,

“Come off it, can’t you!”

But it looks like he’s about to smile. I point at him, sideways, with my head.

“Coo, hark at him. Listen, cock: we won. Have they not told you yet?”

We’re both beginning to enjoy ourselves. We pass Somerset House, still almost intact, and then cross Lancaster Place. To our left, above Waterloo Bridge, the sky broadens outwards, indicating that the river is below it. A little way down, by Wilson’s stationers, a spiv is talking to his girl. He appears, even now, to be selling something; his face, bunched up around his nose, makes him look like he’s about to sneeze. Looking over his shoulder, Pete says,


“Yes. We. You, me and the rest of them, even the bleeding Piccadilly Commandoes, all with our shoulders to the wheel.”

“He says. Where were you when all this was going on?”

“We had it tough. There was an earthquake once. Try holding on to your fish knife when that happens.”

“Fish knife?”

He shakes his head.

“Bollocks to that.”

You’re as elegant as ever.”

I steer him, skipping out beside him, round a little heap of broken glass. I make it look like a gavotte. I’m pedantically graceful. Looming above you, Pete can look like a proper statesman, but he has thick hands as well, reddened and toughened by munitions work, and his face is unremarkable, a conventionally handsome face with a snub nose. I, on the other hand, am wiry but pampered-looking. I’m glossy. My hair, I note approvingly, is gleaming in the window. Pete stops and looks me up and down. He shakes his head; it’s meant to be humorous. I say,

“Fuck off.”

I go to spar with him.

“You navvy. Come ‘ere.”

But there’s a dullness, a dourness, about him that seems to smother the gesture before it has even begun. He tries to make a joke.

“You couldn’t fight your way out of a paper bag.”

Then he looks at his watch.

“We’re late,” he says.

He sets off, and I go capering after him. We’re approaching Trafalgar Square and there’s a heightened awareness, now, an electricity, shared by the people that we pass. It might be possible to think that the shops – Steward’s opticians; Strand Handbag Repairs; Smith’s bun shop – represent something like the triumph of the ordinary if you weren’t continually being reminded of what it is that lies beneath. The statues halfway up Rhodesia House might have been beautiful once, but now they are headless and armless torsos – a line of maimed and battered corpses. Broken buildings lurk, like teeth, around every corner. Dust shifts and settles. It glitters, the way fur glitters when you go against the grain. Pete’s leg is shifting up and down. He has developed an occasional palsy, nothing to write home about but it has him listing ever so slightly to the left. His heart, meanwhile, mirrors the leg. It’s arrhythmic, the doctor says. It was the heart, not the leg, that kept him out of the army.

A bus rolls past us, showing two thick-lashed eyes: an advert for the Picture Post. Piss-elegant, they give the bus a vulnerable, would-be-feminine air. It looks long-suffering; almost graceful. Pete says,

“So how do you know about the Piccadilly Commandoes?”

But I’m ready for him.

“Look,” I say.

We’ve joined the queue outside the Corner House. From here, you can see the crowd that’s annexed the square – a mass that seems to have spilled over, covering almost everything. Its size seems to confer both seriousness and significance, and I can tell you exactly – exactly – what Pete, God bless his credulous little heart, is thinking: Orwell’s everyman. Patient and without vanity; decent; preparing to be in charge. Close up, though, things are a little more complicated. People are getting irritable. (More queues.) Sailors go tottering up and down the road. One man, a bruiser in a battered overcoat, is toasting no-one in particular, saying,

“Gawd bless ‘im.”

Pete sighs.

“Bending the knee,” he says.

I want to poke him in the stomach.


“They don’t want booze.”

“Oh yes they do.”

“No, what they want, Tony, is security. They want plumbing and decent houses. They need freedom from...”

“Squalor, greed, poverty and disease.”

I’m ticking them off on my fingers. Pete’s nodding.

“Well then.”

“Well what? You’re talking like an MP already. You haven’t said anything that anyone could possibly disagree with.”

We’re edging slowly towards the entrance. We are arguing in exactly the same way we always have: it’s an everyman’s dialectic. Pete’s is a sentimental form of Marxism. It’s Rousseauesque. He’s for sincerity; for moral courage and simplicity. We – the English – are a family, he says. (Well, Orwell says.) I don’t agree or disagree with any of this, I just like to hear him stutter. If you can’t smell it or see it or touch it or hear it or taste it then I’m not interested. Even now, I am watching the waitresses, the Nippies, who are running, serene as swimmers, from one corner of the room to the other. The Corner House is the Lyons teashop in excelsis. It’s broad and tall, with several floors, and full of light. There’s a food hall, a hair dressing salon and a theatre booking agency. The waitresses wear black dresses with a double row of buttons, a child’s play-dress that’s topped off, a little saucily, with a semicircular white collar. Their caps look like doilies. Pete says,

“I mean. Look at them.”

“I am.”

“No, I mean look.”

“They look alright to me.”

“This your idea of Heaven, then, this place?”

“You could do worse.”

“A show, a bit of leg and a night out in the West End afterwards.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

Pete shakes his head.

“The days of knocking up shop-girls are over, mate” he says. “They don’t want your attentions any more. They want...”

But Cynthia’s walking towards us now, and he leaves the thought unfinished. (There should be something, some sort of musical notation, here: a trumpet blast; massed strings. You’ll see.) Her hair, down to her shoulders, has a glossy bounce. She’s wearing a thin print dress whose cheapness works, somehow, to her advantage. Its shapelessness, the flimsiness of its material, make her seem young; not innocent, exactly, but with the promise of an underlying innocence. She seems to rise effortlessly above her surroundings.

“You’re Queen of the May,” says Pete.

She lightly smacks his wrist.

“Get away with you.”

Smiling and standing up, I am suddenly all urbanity. Pete says,


“Charmed,” I say.

Cynthia allows her hand to be taken.

“Pleased to meet you,” she says.

Her response seems carefully nuanced. Most other factory girls would have added “I’m sure”, but then most of the other girls have voices that seem to be pitched permanently above machinery. Cynthia’s voice is soft; a low contralto that mutes her cockney accent. It covers it, it bathes it, in a sort of glow. Up close, her face is pert and feline; it isn’t remotely innocent. Now she’s pushing somebody forward.

“Ada,” she says. “Meet Peter.”

Ada is over-weight, with thick, muscular arms and wrists, but her nails are carefully polished and her makeup gives her a slight tan. Her mouth is a crimson gash. Pete is pulling out chairs for them. He says,

“We can’t offer you spoons, I’m afraid. They seem to have disappeared for the duration.”

“Just tea’ll do,” Ada says. “I’ll swirl it round me cup.”

She does a mime, resting her tongue at a comic angle on her upper lip. She is as vivid as a stage comedienne. I can see the sense in this. You can’t compete with Cynthia. Far better to be her faithful sidekick. Pete takes Cynthia’s hand. He turns it over.

“What have you been eating?”

“Toffee,” she says.

She points at Ada.

“It’s her fault.”

“On the q.t.,” Ada says, a little smugly. “I’m on the make-up counter at Selfridges.”

I can’t see the connection. Ada does a comic preen: a slight lift of her hair; a flutter of her lashes.

“Can’t you tell?”

Lifting her leg, she says,

“Elizabeth Arden. Tell me it’s better than cocoa or I’ll cry.”

This is addressed to me. I say,

“It all depends. I’ve never tasted Elizabeth Arden.”


She spots my monogrammed case.

“Ooooh. Can I bum a fag?”

“Bum”, not “cadge” or “nick” – it’s an Americanism. She blows the smoke in a thin stream above her head. I can see that Peter doesn’t approve of her. She’s the wrong sort of working class altogether. This “q.t.” business. She’s Cynthia’s spiv. He says,

“So where are we all planning to go today?”

“I have to see the Mall,” I say. “And Buck House.”

I draw a notebook out of my pocket.

“Verisimilitude,” I say, to Pete, winking.

Of course, I’ve done this deliberately. Ada says,

“Coo. The papers?”

Cynthia looks impressed.

“Blimey,” she says.

Pete says,

“The Clarion.”

Cynthia smiles.

“The Clarion, Cyn.”

“I know. You said. But...”

“It’s a Tory rag.”

“It’s a national newspaper,” I say, “and I write bits of local colour, not editorials.”

“I write” is pushing it. Pete is saying,

“‘The King, looking radiant…’”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“‘…told the crowds that he intended to run a happy ship. ‘A heppy ship,’ he said, ‘and an efficient ship’.”

I smile.

“I think you’ll find that that’s Noel Coward, Pete.”

“I know it’s bloody Noel Coward.”

Cynthia says,


He holds his hands up.

“Sorry. Mixed company.”

Smiling, and looking at me, she says,

“I want to see everything.”

She squeezes Pete’s hand and, as they drink their tea, he holds onto it. She’s making small talk now, ignoring Pete and asking me about the Fleet Air Arm. At one point, I have my hands stretched out beside me, miming the plane, a Seafire, that I have flown (I claim) into action. Looking at Pete, I think: does he know? No, really. Does he? Because looking, really looking, at Cynthia – looking at Cyn, I should say (say it out loud) – is like bending down into a microscope. There’s a vibration, a flicker, that keeps you suspended over her. No, worse, it’s like leaning into a fire. When Pete pays the bill, I barely see it. It’s only when we’re out in the open air that I really notice where I am.

He has tried to encircle Cynthia’s waist, but it’s impractical – the nearer you get to Trafalgar Square, the thicker the crowd becomes – and he has to let her go, finger by finger. Ada’s shouting,


Someone is playing a banjo while a sailor dances and balances a top hat on his head. Four GIs are waltzing round him. Barely ingratiating, they are strutting and gurning like chimpanzees. Ada puts two fingers in the corners of her mouth and wolf-whistles, then shouts,

“Any gum, chum?”

But the waltz continues. Outside the National Gallery, hawkers are selling victory rosettes, hats, blowers and flags. A haunted-looking man is selling buttonhole badges, shouting,

“Churchill for sixpence. Worth more!”

Pete begins to speak but Cyn’s hand goes over his mouth. She kisses him lightly on the cheek.

“Terror,” she says.

He grabs her hand again. Loudspeakers seem to have blossomed in various crevices. The base of the column is covered in placards, the bottom of each showing the silhouette of a platonic city (the new Jerusalem!) untouched by war. People are everywhere. It’s like being in an underground station: the police are keeping people in, or out, by holding on to white handkerchiefs. I turn to Pete. Smiling, with arms outstretched, I say,

“Here, on this day in spring…”

He looks sourly down at me.

“Why don’t you write it in your notebook?”

But I can tell that he is enjoying himself. He points at the people sitting at the bottom of the plinth. They’re all decked out in ribbons and conical hats but they look tired – dour and pasty – and it’s incongruous, I think; like strapping a bow tie on a horse. What is Pete going to say?

“God love ‘em”? “Bless ’em all”? “Look at their dear old faces”? I smile and say,

“They’re inveterate gamblers, don’t forget.”

“Who are?”

“They are. The working class. They drink as much as they can get their hands on and they swear like billy-o.”

“I can’t believe…”

I pinch one of his cheeks and wobble it. It gives me disproportionate satisfaction. It’s something, I know, to do with Cynthia.

“Orwell,” I say. “What? Don’t remember it? You should look it up some time.”

I ruffle his hair. The speakers begin to spit and crackle. An amplified Big Ben strikes three o’clock. I notice that certain soldiers and older men are pulling their shoulders back. I wonder why, then Churchill speaks.

“Yesterday,” he is saying, “at 2.41 a.m. at Headquarters General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Dönitz, the designated head of the German state, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all the German land, sea and air forces, in Europe, to the Allied Expeditionary Force and to the Soviet High Command.”

So sonorous, Churchill, what with that rusty voice and all of those ponderous sub-clauses. Personally, I find him funny (all that gravitas) but he drives Pete mad. This time, however, I am surprised to find that I am responding to him. He is saying “… the ‘Cease Fire’ began yesterday to be sounded along the fronts” and there are shouts and cheers. I find that I am looking up at an advertisement for Greys’ Cigarettes. It’s placed at, or just above, the roof of a building: two horizontals, a diptych, with a picture as a centrepiece – an image of a member of the Coldstream Guards – that is, in its way, as platonic as the silhouette of the London skyline. We have come through, I think. Me and Pete, we are still standing. I am able to hold two images of Churchill in my head: Churchill the buccaneer, the man who, according to Bevan, was just a cheerleader, who suffered from a “petrified adolescence” (this is Pete’s view) and this other man, the man who has given us victory. Not as a matter of strategy; given us victory now, by dint of what he is saying.

“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead. Japan,” he says, “with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued.”

And so on. Again, it’s possible to smile at the rhetoric, at the Shakespearian hyperbole and brutality, and at the same time to bellow along, when it comes, to the national anthem. Pete is doing it too; there are tears in his eyes. I pat him, thump him rather, on the back. He looks ever-so-sternly down at me but then he nods, once, and he grips my arm. He seems to swim into view – he takes on height and weight – but then it’s over. Already, the crowd, and hence its mood, is shifting. People are wandering off. There are whistles and catcalls. The speakers are hissing feebly, like somebody has doused them. I reach inside the pocket of my tunic.

“Here are,” I say.

I give him a flask. I palm it, slyly, although I don’t really need to. There’s something intimate in the gesture, something conspiratorial, that makes it irresistible. It forges a link between us. I can see what he is thinking: that this is almost certainly black market stuff, bought in an alley, say, or in a backroom club – a grill in the door and business transacted in a series of winks and leers and nudges. (He isn’t far wrong.) He hates it, on principle, but it doesn’t stop him snarfing it. I pass it over to Ada, who acts out a shiver, a huge juddering wince, then hands it to Cyn, who raises her eyebrows, sipping and spluttering, so that Ada has to slap her on the back. Pete links arms with me and we do a quick, lumbering version of the Lambeth Walk but then he snatches the flask and takes another gulp. I say,

“Steady on.”

I’m only half joking.

“That’s good stuff, that is.”

He grins.

“Only the best.”

The scotch seems to propel him, like a gust of wind, across the road. It won’t last, this vivacity; it never does. The Mall is packed. Pete turns and looks at me but I shrug – what can you do? – and shake my head. I lead us the other way. More scotch; more crowds; more glittering dust. Pete’s saying,

“She’ll be perfect when it comes to surgeries. She’s very passionate.”

I think: I’ll bet she is. Cynthia’s self-containment, the way that she seems to be cosseting her own body, is potent enough. But talk to her; lean into her… I think: how can he fail? We are walking up Haymarket now. Outside the Gaumont, someone has made a bonfire and there are shards of ripped-up posters that are still flickering in the breeze. Pete puts his arm around my shoulders.

“A pub,” he says. “We need a pub.”

He sets the pace, marching slightly ahead of us.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s beat the crowds.”

It’s a meaningless statement. The crowds are everywhere. He leads us into Piccadilly Circus. People are standing shoulder to shoulder and the four of us are forced to stand still for a moment. There are ambulance men beside Swan and Edgar’s. Eros has been removed, its pedestal advertises Savings Bonds, and, on top of it, a paratrooper and a blonde in tight green slacks are kissing – really kissing, with a dogged sort of thoroughness. Men and women, wearing each other’s caps, are swinging their legs over the side. Enormous adverts, for Bovril and Bile Beans, add to the sense of something populist, a celebration – a knees-up – that is less officially sanctioned than the one in Trafalgar Square. Pete takes another hit of scotch then gestures up towards the adverts with the flask.

“Mammon,” he says.

He sounds almost approving. I shout,

“Take me to him.”

I push him forward. At the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, there is a snowfall, a drift of bus tickets and torn up menus and Ministry of Information posters that people are bathing in, laughing and trying to catch them as they fall. GIs are leaning out of the windows, waving and cheering. Ada is saying,

“Rainbow Corner!”

She quickens her pace. She stands, tightly squeezed in, trying to jitterbug beneath the paper. She waves frantically upwards and someone shouts,

“Up here, sister!”

Still dancing, she waggles her fingers. She shakes her arse – it looks about to speak – then makes to go, smiling, and there are whistles and shouts of “Hey!” and “Awwwwww!”. I say,

“No panty-waist, she.”

Four GIs are gesturing upwards. Ada turns to Cynthia.

“Shall we?”

Cynthia looks uncertain. Turning to Pete, Ada says,

“Oh, let’s! There are bottles of coke, and they have tons and tons of fags. Proper fags. And there’s a dance-floor. It’s this big.”

She nods at Cynthia.

“You should see her.”

She is attempting to enlist him. Pete frowns.

“I should see her what?”

Already, just like I knew it would, his excitement is curdling into something else. His face, both gloomy and bewildered, has thickened slightly. He turns to Cynthia. Slowly, he repeats it.

“I should see you what?”

She tries to take his hand but he refuses to lift his arm.

“It was the once,” she says. “You were...”

She pauses. She is embarrassed. She swiftly passes her right hand over her head, making the shape of a tin helmet.

“You know.”

“Fire-fighting. You mean fire-fighting.”

“We were here already,” she says.

She is swinging his arm, has interlocked their fingers, but he is refusing to respond.

“I’d just met Ada. A raid had started, and... Oh, I don’t know.”

She pulls her hand away.

“It was fun, Peter.”

We are all squeezed together. We’re surrounded by people who are bobbing and crowing hilariously but Pete is shuffling his feet and looking down at the ground.

“Fun, Peter?”, she says. “Remember that?”

“No,” he says. “I don’t.”

It is a simple statement of fact. I say,

“I tell you what. Let’s go to the boozer first. A quick one, and then we’ll see. Alright?”

I pat Pete on the back.

“Come on, old mate.”

Cyn is no longer at his side. Ada is gabbling something into her ear, her smoke forming a burlesque feather in front of her. I lead them up a side-street and into a battered-looking pub: a wedge-of-cheese shape at the corner of two roads. The pub’s perfect for Peter, or it would be if he was any happier. There’s grained woodwork and tall ornamental mirrors and a cast-iron fireplace. There are few uniforms and everyone is singing but it’s a dour and almost dutiful sort of celebration – people are standing to attention and they are only swaying circumspectly, taking care not to disturb their neighbour. The whole is brown and grey, dingy and smudged with smoke. It’s like a bleeding church, I think. Pushing my way up to the bar, I struggle back, shouting, “No glasses! Quick!”

Ada bows rapidly up and down, her hands together.

“Velly solly,” she says.

She scuttles to the back of the room and disappears behind a clump of singing customers. When she reappears, she has four glasses in her hands. One of them isn’t even empty. Ada is bowing and bowing and Cynthia’s laughing. Her eyes have a sheen, an impervious gloss, now that the flask is finished. I say,

“You’ve upset him now.”

She shrugs; a jerk of the shoulders that’s as revealing as if she’d farted or picked her nose.

“’e didn’t ought to be so prim, did ’e?”

The scotch has rubbed a layer of varnish off her voice. I smile, but just enough. It’s like playing poker. I look away from her, around the bar. The song has changed and is more in keeping, now, with the decorous mood. There will always be an England, they sing, as long as there’s a country lane. Ada’s booming along – she has her hand on someone’s shoulder and is singing “As long as England means to you what England means to me!” – but it might just as well be “Mairzy Doats and Doazy Doats” as far as she’s concerned. They are a queer-looking bunch: small gents in caps and bosomy seaside wives and labourers and little old ladies, all with bad teeth and greasy hair. Part of me, to be honest, wants to bless the assembled company, like Tiny Tim. But I’ve come from Trinidad, can you imagine? Talk about slap in the face. Still, Cynthia’s different. Her stance, one hand under an elbow and the other at right angles, holding a cigarette, looks considered; actressy. I pat my pocket again. To Pete, I say,

“Come on: give us a quote.”

I am aware, even as I am doing this, of just how unfair it is. I can’t seem to stop.

“Go on: something pompous. The future MP and his, what? His future bride?”

“God. I should cocoa,” Cynthia says.

I laugh, throwing my head back. I had carefully placed quotation marks around the question; had used – had made it clear that I was using – a cliché of the press. In this way, I could pretend that I wasn’t asking. But I was. Pete’s saying,

“You have to write about what you know, don’t you? Isn’t that what they say? Well, obviously, you can’t do that, can you? You’ve forgotten it all. You’re the quality, mate. Look at you: you’re a chinless wonder.”

He chucks me under the chin. Grinning, or, rather, moving my lips so that they form the slightest of upward curves, I say,

“What do you think, Ada? Am I a toff?”

Ada stands a little to one side of me, pretending to scrutinise me carefully. You can see her tongue, its persistent pressure, beneath her cheek. At last, she says,

“I think you’re all piss and wind.”

Again, I roar. Cynthia says, “Ada!” but she is also laughing. Pete’s shocked. He holds his nose between his thumb and forefinger, trying to look like he is smiling. I say,

“And Peter?”

I am still grinning. Ada says,

“Oh gawd.”

She hides her eyes.

“I wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh, go on,” Cynthia says. “Somebody should.”

She seems to be communicating that her distance and irritation have their beginnings in something else. What is it? Pete’s earnestness? He isn’t “saucy” enough, is that it? I’ll bet, I think, he drags her from meeting hall to meeting hall. I’ll bet he hardly touches her. I say,

“Pete’s a trooper.”

I am aware, of course, that this has two meanings and it’s the second one, the military one, that I’m hoping will make Pete feel uncomfortable. He says,

“And you’re a berk.”

Which is bathetic. He’s perfectly cumbersome, Pete, once you are snapping at his heels. By the time we leave, he’s all but mute. The beer’s run out but I’m aglow. I put my arms around the girls.

“More booze?”

“Not ’arf.”

This is Ada. Cynthia is nodding rapidly. There’s a bubble of saliva, I notice, on her lower lip. I feel like I’m hovering at the edge of a cliff.

“Come on,” I say. “I know where I can get some.”

Outside, the three of us link arms. Cynthia’s talking to me. She’s saying,

“It was the strangest thing. It was like the air was falling apart. One minute everything was normal, I was just tired and cheesed off at my mum, and...”

She rubs at her forehead.

"Oh,” she says. “I’m not explaining this very well.”

“You’re explaining it perfectly. Go on.”

“Well, I was on my face, inside the kitchen door, and it was just like being out at sea – it felt like there were huge waves all around me, and I thought, Oh God: I’ve come a right cropper now.”

She laughs. There’s a pucker of darker lipstick in a crevice in her upper lip. Out here, I can see more clearly that she has managed to wash her hair. It seems to be composed, partly, of sunlight.

“But the thing is, that night, I lay there feeling...”

She shakes her head. She is still dazed, it seems, or dazzled, by the experience. She had appeared to be abstracted but now she turns to look at me. I become aware, properly, of my erection. She says,

“Oh God. Feeling happy. I kept saying to myself: I’ve been bombed! I was delighted. I know it’s a terrible thing to say with so many killed and injured but I’d never experienced such… delight.”

She glances, again, at Pete, knowing that she has just said something terrible. It seems obvious, too, that she has said it deliberately; that this is a message that is meant for me. But Ada’s singing now. She’s doing “The White Cliffs Of Dover”, very badly. It’s a satirical commentary. The combination of her rapidly batting eyelids and the hand over her nose produces a winsome, homely effect: two fingers to Vera Lynn. Her high notes waver hilariously, like somebody playing a saw. I realise, for the first time, that she can be properly funny. Even Peter is smiling now. I gesture for him to catch up with us.

“Come on,” I say. “I’m gasping.”

He shrugs. The sun is hot and I feel itchy in my uniform. It’s an instructive contrast: the glamour – the bristling shirtfront and the epaulettes – and then, below it, and, if you like, informing it, your bollocks, sweating into your handkerchief. God knows what Pete must be feeling. He comes lurching slowly after us. I know a club, with a grill in the door, but they won’t let us in. We end up in a saloon bar with mock-tudor panelling and scarlet lino. There are squares of tartan around the walls and armorial images set in the windows – a cuboid lion; a sword; two hands playing what looks a little like a clarinet. We’re all drinking gin now, and it isn’t long before I have my notebook out. I look up at the ceiling, tilt my head and frown.

“The young princesses looked.”

I tap my pencil, jazzwise, against my teeth.



Cynthia is looking over my shoulder. I nod and note it down. Ada says,

“Gawd bless ’em.”

It isn’t clear if any irony is intended. She is doing a drunk act: a sodden-looking tendril of hair is covering her left eye and, as she lights a cigarette, she squints carefully past it at the match that she is trying to keep steady. Pete has taken refuge in a soggy quiescence. His attempts to look dignified are only slightly marred by the slowness of his responses. He looks at me and then at Cynthia – his head swings slowly, like a bull’s, from side to side – but, whatever it is, he can’t, or won’t, put it into words. He draws himself to attention.

“St. Paul’s,” he says. “Come on. I want to see St Paul’s.”

Cynthia holds carefully onto his arm. Outside, what with the gin, there is a flatness to the shops and house-fronts, as if things have been painted without perspective. This also applies to me: one breath of wind and I’ll go bowling down the street. We all feel, I think, that St Paul’s is appropriate, a climax, and we retrace our steps a little solemnly down Brewer Street, through Piccadilly Circus and down Haymarket into Trafalgar Square. Piccadilly Circus is a riot: there are fireworks, and ragged cheers. Pubs and restaurants and the few cars that struggle through the crowds seem prodigal with unexpected light. After the blackout, it must seem brilliantly extravagant, like scattering heaps of coins. In Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is honey-coloured. St Martin’s is a ghostly blue. The Houses of Parliament are starkly lit: arthritic and admonitory. I am drunk, I realise. Small children gawp and point. (But not at me.) Ada goes sailing out, a pert soubrette, in front of the gallery then sashays back and grabs my arm. We waltz. Her body is surprising; it’s tauter than I expected. Waiting for us, Pete seems both present and absent at the same time.

Most of the pubs have shut for lack of beer. On the Strand, people are sitting on the pavement, laughing and, in one case, blowing raspberries. Outside the Bunch of Grapes, someone is playing a battered bugle. It’s supposed to be jazz but sounds like a pie-eyed military jog-trot. Ada is leaning into me now, while Cynthia and Pete walk slightly ahead of us. (Gawd bless ’em.) Cynthia is still both perfectly, serenely balanced and implausibly elegant, her arse a sort of metronome. We walk past St Clement Dane’s. Fleet Street is largely unscathed. St Brides is a shell, its spire pointlessly ornate, but nearly all of the other buildings have survived. Not so Ludgate Hill. It feels like there is almost nothing here but rubble and scrub. You have the sense of being surrounded by enormous spaces which are marked out by the bonfires that have been set in cellars and bombed-out buildings. Two searchlights have been placed on either side of the dome of St Paul’s, making a V for victory. It’s darker, here, more solemn, which clearly irritates Ada. She disappears then comes back, dancing through the crowd and waving a bottle of champagne above her head. She pops the cork and Pete flinches. He isn’t the only one, I notice. Ada takes the bottle and upends it, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She passes it to Cynthia, who does the same. I try to take it casually and it’s this, I think, the supposed intimacy of it, that does for Pete. He grabs the bottle and swings it, missing me but falling onto Cynthia, pushing her over. So much for dignity. Enraged by what he has done, he goes after me, all hands and legs and teeth. He seems to be propelled by something, like a speck of paper tumbling and rearing in a fire. I am just thinking of trying to fight back when he is lifted and flung backwards. There’s blood on the road and, shockingly, on Cynthia’s forehead. Pete’s jacket is half-off and he’s flapping and squawking like a captured bird. Ada’s laughing. Pete bucks and flounders, gasping, but he can’t get away. He’s still trying to get at me but they won’t let him go, and now Ada is tugging at my arm. He’s shouting “I’ll give you fucking trooper” but she’s murmuring something in my ear (what is it?) and yanking at my arm and suddenly we’re running, full pelt, and passing the bottle between us. Hand in hand, slowing a little, we go clambering over the rubble. It’s sexy. The rubble; the darkness… I’m sorry. It is. Behind us, the spotlights give a fine two-fingered salute. We are walking now. There’s what feels like an alleyway and then a swamp and a hidey-hole: a dark dead-end. Turning, still laughing, she takes my hands and places them on her hips. Her breath is spiced with alcohol and I can feel the way her breasts go up and down. Smiling, she places a finger inside my shirt. She leans into my ear and says,

“It’s alright, Anthony. You can pretend I’m her.”


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