Mab smiled. She’d pressed every crease out of her berry-colored crepe dress, slipped on the French slings Francis Gray had given her, and Osla had lent a stunning cashmere wrap—as Mab dashed to catch the train, she knew she was looking her best. Mabel Churt from Shoreditch, taking supper with a rather famous war poet—that would be something to tell Mum.
He didn’t look like a war poet—waiting for her on the platform in London, Francis Gray could have been any small-town countryman on his yearly trip to the capital, stocky and silent in a gray civilian suit, battered homburg in one wide hand, certainly no languid literary lion. Yet—“You’re very lovely, aren’t you,” he said quietly in greeting, taking her in head to toe.
“Thank you.” A man who could deliver a compliment without slavering or fumbling—that, after months of dating awkward university boys, felt refreshing. Mab’s heart glowed just a little as she took his arm. All around swirled a river of uniforms hastening about their business: ack-ack girls headed for their shifts on the antiaircraft guns, fire wardens tramping toward the nightly watch on St. Paul’s, everyone seemingly engaged in war business . . . but not Mab, not tonight. She was climbing into a taxi with a man who thought she looked lovely, and he was giving directions to Veeraswamy on Regent Street—an Indian restaurant, imagine that, with waiters in white turbans and shades of red and gold all around. Mab for the first time in days was able to put the bombes and their rackety clack-clack-clack behind her. She was going to take this evening and enjoy it.
Or rather, she’d try to enjoy it. Difficult when Francis Gray wouldn’t bloody well talk.
“Tell me about your writing,” she began after the waiter had taken their order. “I’m a great reader, but I don’t know a thing about what it takes to put words on paper.” She rested chin on hand with a fascinated expression, ready to listen at length.
“I don’t, either,” he replied with a smile.
She waited, but he didn’t seem inclined to say more. “I know you published Mired after the Fourteen–Eighteen War.” The facts about him at the back of the slim volume of poetry had been sparse, but she had gleaned what she could. “You wrote them during your time in France?”
He rotated his glass. “After.”
“Goodness, you were still very young.” He’d enlisted at sixteen in the last six months of the war, which made him thirty-nine now. “Of course, I saw a good many boys in my neighborhood lying about their age to join up in this war. I suppose it’s natural to want to serve before the world thinks you’re ready.”
He shook his head. “They’ll learn.”
“I wonder if they’ll become poets, too.”
“Hopefully not. The world has too many bad poets.”
“I hear my themes were a bit obvious.”
Mab repressed a blush, thinking of their last meeting. It was like something out of a bad farce, criticizing a writer’s work to his face, oblivious. Still, she wasn’t going to reverse herself and get obsequious now; if he’d asked her for a date after she’d already shredded his iambic pentameter, he clearly wasn’t looking for slavish praise. “Thematically they aren’t the most original I’ve ever read,” she said, adding a bit of sparkle to the eye, “but your use of language is lovely.” That wasn’t just flattery, either.
“I’ll take your word for it,” the poet said. “Haven’t read them in years.”
The waiter brought the first course. Mulligatawny soup, whatever that was—bright yellow, practically glowing. Mab picked up her spoon warily. “I heard you were invited to meet the king, at the ten-year anniversary of the peace.”
“What was he like?”
Another smile. “Kingly.”
Mab suppressed a flash of irritation. Why wouldn’t he talk? Normally her dates never shut up: you asked a leading question or two and they were off to the races.
“Having served in one war,” she tried, “it must be very surprising to find yourself neck-deep in another.” The soup was hot and pungent on her tongue. What was her breath going to smell like if he tried to kiss her good night?
A faintly bitter slant to his mouth. “Wars are cyclical. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when they come round again.”
“What do you find different, this time?”
All right, he didn’t want to discuss this war or the last—fair enough. “So tell me about your work in London—whatever can be told, anyway.”
“It’s dull. Very.”
For God’s sake, Mab thought. It really wasn’t fair to make your conversational partner do all the work on a date. Why don’t you ask a question or two, Mr. Gray?
But he clearly wasn’t going to, so she tried again.
“Where do you live, when not in London?”
“So when you go home, you can say you’re being sent to Coventry,” she joked.
“I suppose you’ve heard all the jokes about being sent to Coventry.”
Another smile, but no reply.
The soup disappeared, replaced by something called chicken madras. Mab stared at it. It was bright orange. I am eating orange food with a mute, she thought.
Matapan. Surely he could talk about the recent battle off Cape Matapan. Anyone could make conversational hay out of the greatest naval victory since Trafalgar. “Isn’t the news about Matapan wonderful?”
“I don’t know, is it?”
“Three heavy cruisers and two destroyers sunk on their side, none on ours.” Mab quoted the newspaper she’d devoured with a bar of ration chocolate at the NAAFI kiosk on break. “A few thousand of Mussolini’s boys killed, none of ours. I’d say that’s wonderful.”
He shrugged. “Unless you’re among Mussolini’s few thousand.”
Another conversational topic as dead in the water as those Italian cruisers. Mab took a slightly defeated bite of chicken. It filled her mouth with flame. She set her fork down, trying not to choke.
“Too spicy?” he asked.
“Not at all,” she managed to say. She’d be boiled in oil before she reached for her glass.
He forked up a mouthful of his without the slightest discomfort. All right, then, Mab thought.
She sat back, crossed one leg over the other, and composed her burning lips in a smile. He smiled back, eating. The sound of a sitar plinked. The waiter took Mab’s explosive orange chicken away. Pudding arrived, something called halva that had absolutely no resemblance to pudding, but at least it didn’t ignite in her mouth like petrol. She finished it, put her fork down, and smiled again.
“You don’t seem particularly shy,” she said at last. “So what is it?”
His fork paused. “I beg your pardon?”
“Most quiet men are quiet because they’re shy. But I don’t think that’s you, Mr. Gray, so is there any particular reason you’re not contributing to the conversation beyond monosyllables?”
“I don’t particularly enjoy talking about myself, Miss Churt.”
“All right. I understand that, especially when one has a job one isn’t allowed to discuss. But you could ask me about myself, you know, or comment on the weather, or the food. Because it’s frankly rather rude, sitting there expecting me to carry all the conversational weight. Why do I have to entertain you for the entire evening, and you somehow don’t feel the need to reciprocate?”
“I never asked you to entertain me,” he replied mildly.
“It’s the usual expectation, Mr. Gray. A gentleman invites a lady to dinner, she accepts, and they make an effort to amuse one another. I promise you, I’m quite entertaining if given a smidgen of encouragement. I can imitate Churchill better than the man himself, I have an arsenal of jokes from the arcane to the profane, I’ve read numbers one through eighty-three of ‘One Hundred Classic Literary Works for the Well-Read Lady’ and have opinions on all of them.” Mab pushed back her chair and stood up. “If you will excuse me, I’m going to the powder room. When I get back, I wouldn’t mind having an actual conversation. Pick a topic—I promise I will hold up my end.”
She half expected another shrug but got an unexpected grin.
“You should wear six-inch heels,” Francis Gray said. “You’d be halfway to seven feet tall, and that speech would come out even more like a queen issuing a proclamation.”
“Short men don’t like very tall heels,” she parried.
“I happen to like amazons.” He ran a hand over his chestnut hair, hesitating. “I hate talking about myself, Miss Churt, so I assume others do too. I like silence, so I forget it makes others uncomfortable. I do apologize. When you get back from the powder room, I won’t be such a pillar of salt.”
She smiled, went off to freshen up her lipstick, then slid back into her seat with a slight resurgence of that glow from the beginning of the night. “Why do you dislike talking about yourself?”
He made a wry face. “Because people hear the word poet and get silly ideas.”
“What, you aren’t a poet?”
“I was an idiot of sixteen who ran off to war because I thought it would be some glorious adventure. When I realized it was not I wrote a few insipid, childish verses about my time in the trenches rather than eat my service revolver. I haven’t penned so much as a limerick since.” He took out his cigarette case. “I’m not a bloody poet, if you’ll excuse my language. Just a chap with an office job who likes quiet.”