His mother set the tea-tray down on the coffee table, and Robin took his crutch and hobbled over to sit on the sofa. “I dropped by the Mission to see Aunt Hattie today,” he remarked.
“In your condition?!” his mother answered, horrified. She had never approved of him “hanging about” the Seaman’s Mission, because he came in contact with “bad company” there. Robin, on the other hand, had been starved for masculine role models as a boy, and so he had been fascinated by the tattooed and weathered men who washed up at the Mission. He’d always spent time down there when he could, often helping Cook because the retired seaman had a wealth of fascinating – and by no means completely sanitised – stories. “There was a new girl working there. Emily Pryce.”
“Good heavens! What do you want with the girls Hattie drags in? For all you know she was a you-know-what! She might well be diseased.”
“With a Cambridge education and quoting John Maynard Keynes?”
His mother had no answer to that but didn’t need one. The telephone started ringing out in the hall, and she rushed to answer it.
“Yes, yes!” Robin heard her say breathlessly into the phone, and then, “He just got in. I’ll go fetch him.” She rushed back into the sitting room and stage-whispered at Robin. “It’s Miss Cox-Gordon!”
“I don’t want—” He thought better of it, took a crutch and limped into the hallway. He took up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Robin, darling! I was so worried! Are you really all right?”
“Brilliant. Wizard. Nothing but a bashed ankle. Cast comes off in a couple of weeks or so. Then I’m back on ops.”
“So soon? Then we must get together at the first opportunity. What are you doing tomorrow? I’m having a few friends down to the country.” She meant her father’s country estate in Kent. “Why don’t you join us?”
“Sorry. Can’t drive yet. Not until the cast comes off. Nice of you to think of me, though. Just have to wait until I’m fit. I’ll give you a ring.”
“Look, if you can’t drive, how about if I come down to Portsmouth one evening and pick you up?”
“Wouldn’t want to impose. Besides, Portsmouth’s pretty grim at the moment. Navy all over the place.”
Virginia tittered. “Honestly, Robin, there’s nothing new about the Navy in Portsmouth. Besides, it must be quite exciting, really. London is dreadfully boring these days. Black-outs and air raid wardens and everybody in some silly uniform – and, oh yes, you should see the Americans. There seem to be American press people everywhere these days.” She interrupted herself to ask him, “You know I’ve got a job with the Times, don’t you?”
“Congratulations. Society Page?”
“No! Who cares about that now-a-days? I’m covering London. You wouldn’t believe all the silly questions these Americans insist on asking everyone! ‘Will Britain bear up?’ ‘Can the RAF stop the Luftwaffe?’”
Virginia tittered again. “You’re a card, Robin. You should know.”
“Haven’t the foggiest. Look, Virginia, my aunt just got in, and I must entertain her.” He was looking at Aunt Hattie, who having let herself in was coming up the stairs. “I’ll ring you later in the week. Thanks for calling.”
He’d already hung up.
“Just who was that?” Hattie asked giving him a piercing look.
Hattie’s eyebrows went up. She didn’t read the gossip pages, but many of her staff – and of course her sister Lydia – did. She knew exactly who Virginia Cox-Gordon was: daughter of a millionaire, debutante, the “catch of the season” just last year, before the war started.
“You know your other girl friends call my flat,” she told him a low, reproachful voice.
“Just how many girls did you give my number to?”
“Only two.” He thought about it. “Three.”
Hattie sighed and gazed at him sadly.
“I am sorry they bothered you,” Robin insisted, looking sincere. “I told them not to call unless it was an absolute emergency, and—”
“Yes, well, I’m sure things look very different from your superior male vantage point, but to us poor females here on the ground, the fact that you were last seen duelling with two Messerschmitts over the ruins of Calais in the midst of the worst rout in English history seemed very much like an ‘emer-gency.’ I can’t say I blame them, but I do wonder about you sometimes….”
Robin concluded it might not be the best moment to ask her for Emily Pryce’s telephone number.
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