Three flights of stairs later and my key slips easily into the lock.
It’s a dead heat as what hits me first, the aroma of Elizabeth’s cooking or the song playing on the radio.
You’d be so nice to come home to
You’d be so nice by the fire
While the breeze on high, sang a lullaby
You’d be all my heart could desire
Under stars chilled by the winter
Under an August moon shining above
You’d be so nice, you’d be paradise
To come home to and love
It’s not exactly our song, but it probably should be. Cole Porter weaves his way through our young lives. He was a soldier in the Great War. He made it home, and so did I.
I am coming home, and there is a fire in the grate. She is my heart’s desire, but it’s not quite August. This time last year, I was trying not to get killed in a war that was all but over.
I haven’t had time to close the door properly when Elizabeth wraps herself around my neck. “You’re home,” she says in my ear rather too loudly. I lift her off the ground, and my tired muscles complain. I spin her around, and they complain a little more.
“I sure am. Who else were you expecting?”
“Only you. Always you,” she says, and not for the first time I wonder how she remained faithful all those years I was away. In many ways, she’s a better man than I am.
“What’s cooking. Smells great?”
“It’s a stew, and you have to guess the secret ingredient,” she says, and out of nowhere, she produces a wooden spoon. Steam rising, delicious aroma. The taste matches my expectations. The girl can cook. I can’t pick the secret ingredient and she won’t tell me what it is. “You have to guess.”
“How do you manage these meals in such a tiny kitchen?”
“The secret is to clean up as you go then you don’t trip up on your mess,” she said, earnestly.
Our apartment isn’t exactly tiny, but you wouldn’t want more than two people rattling around in it. The kitchen, such as it is, merges with the sitting room. There’s room for a good-sized table and four chairs (which we inherited from the Simpsons when they moved back to the country — the City was too much for these gentle souls). The walls could use a lick of paint, but the windows all open on command and stay open without the aid of a prop (I fixed the sash cords on the ones in the sitting room — Elizabeth had been propping them open when we first moved in). The bedroom is just big enough for an armoire, a double bed and a little table on my side. Elizabeth makes do with a tiny dressing table. The bevel edged mirror reflects the low afternoon sun in the winter and produces rainbows on the walls. Our bedroom smells of her perfume and powder — it makes me feel married, and I’ve had my fill of male smells.
“I’m going to wash the grime off,” I say as Elizabeth puts the finishing touches to our evening meal.
It’s no longer early in the evening, so it’s dark outside. The street light on the corner and the neon signs are overwhelming the fading daylight. Our windows are open. I can hear the street sounds as they intrude between songs on the radio.
I strip down to my waist and scrub the dirt off my body, the perspiration off my arms and rigors of the day fall away — I’m home, where it is warm and safe. Where Elizabeth waits for me.
I put on a clean shirt and pants. Despite my fatigue, I have to fight the desire to walk into the kitchen, scoop up Elizabeth and carry her into our bedroom. She would put up a pretend fight — a token resistance and I would make love to her until she called out my name — and that’s how I know. She only calls out my name when she has reached that place. At those times, I know better than to call her Liz — it has to be Elizabeth, it’s the only name she will answer to. “It’s the name I was given, and I don’t like to lose any of it.”
Which is fair enough. We have pet names for each other, but saying our names in full seems grown-up somehow.
Most of our early adulthood was sacrificed to the war effort, so now we have some catching up to do.
I don’t scoop her up and have my wicked way. I return to her and stand in front of the fire, freshly scrubbed, warming my bum.
Elizabeth ferries the steaming plates the few steps from the kitchen to the table, where a table cloth and napkins await the plates, nestled between silver-plated knives and forks. There is a vase with flowers, and sometimes, on special occasions, a candle is burning in a green glass candle holder.
“Do you mind if I light the candle?” I say.
“No. Go ahead. Is it a special occasion that I’ve forgotten?”
“Maybe. Let’s see how the evening pans out,” I say.
“You are not going to tell me you’re having a baby?” she says, and I laugh. Her humour constantly surprises me.
“Not that I know of, but it’s too early to tell,” I say through the remains of a smile.
“Would you like me to put a baby in you?” I ask. We have had this conversation, but I’m wondering if her joke was a hint that she had changed her mind.
“Not just yet. We need to get on our feet first, don’t you think?” she said.
“I agree, and that has a lot to do with the lit candle. I’ve been thinking.” I said.
“Thinking is one of the things you do best, among other things,” she said, and she lowered her eyes like a little girl and smiled.
“I would think you would be sick of me doing that by now,” I said, “It’s been months of nothing but sex, sex, sex. Frankly, I’m getting bored,” I said, expecting a silver-plated fork to go whizzing past my ear.
“I’ll remember that when dinner is over, and you suggest a bit of ‘cuddling’,” she said.
“I take it all back. I want my most recent comments to be stricken from the record, your honour.”
She smiled, and we ate, and we both knew that we would end up in each other’s arms.
“So why did you light the candle?” she said between mouthfuls.
I soaked up some of the gravy with a thick slice of bread and wondered how to start.
“You know how good we look in evening clothes? Well, I was thinking of putting our good looks to work for us. I love our life as it is, I really do, but we have to think of the future. I have a good job, but being a labourer is not going to bring in enough money to get us into our own home.”
“I bring in a bit with my part-time job. I learned a lot when you were away. I can earn,” she said, and it occurred to me that she phrased it, ‘when you were away’ so that the terror of it all seemed less real — only ‘away for a while’, not being shot at or being blown to pieces.
“I know you do kid, but at this rate, we’ll be in our own place by the time we’re sixty.”
“We’re together, and we’re safe — you’re safe, and we have a good life. Can’t we just enjoy it for a while longer?” she said.
I could hear the anxiety in her voice, and the longing — she wanted to keep me close so that the bad memories would fade away.
“I understand what you are saying, but I think we need to be brave. We survived when a lot of people didn’t. We owe it to ourselves to live our lives.”
We ate our meal without speaking, and I hoped that I had not upset her. She trusts me, and I believe she will go forward with me, but it might take a bit of convincing.
“So, what did you have in mind?” she said, and I breathed out.
“Well, as I said, we cut a dashing figure when we are dressed up and out and about.”
“That’s true,” she said.
“There are lots of opportunities out there if you know where to look. As you said, you’ve learned a lot of new skills while I was away and I’ve had a heap of experiences as well. I know how to survive, and I know how to move through the world, and I notice things that others don’t. It’s part of the reason I made it to the rank of sergeant. I think that we have the skills and all we need are the contacts. We can decide together what opportunities to take and which ones to leave alone.”
I drank the glass of water in front of me and let my words sink in.
“I’m listening,” she said.
“Skills on their own are not enough. We need to get to know people who are successful and see if some of it rubs off on us. I’m sure that I can get interesting jobs working with motivated people, I just need us to meet them. On my own, I’m just a bloke on the make. Together, we are a couple out for an adventure. Who could resist us?”
“Going out to nightclubs, wearing beautiful clothes sounds like fun, but we barely have anything left over at the end of the month as it is. How do we finance this new lifestyle?”
“I have my army pay. I know you wondered why I didn’t spend it all when I got home. Most of my mates were broke within a few months.”
“I admired your restraint, and it was your money, you earned it, so I wasn’t going to tell you how to spend it. I’m not that kind of girl.”
“You would have been within your rights. You waited for me all that time without even a ring. What would you have done if I didn’t come home?”
She didn’t answer, she just stared at her plate.
“I’ve worked out that if we are careful, we can keep it up for about six months before the money runs out. Longer if I can work during the day and not fall asleep on the dance floor at night.”
“Or get yourself killed at work because you are too tired to concentrate,” she said still staring at the pattern on the tablecloth.
“If we get lucky and work comes my way, I’ll leave the construction job, and that should take care of the fatigue factor.”
“No. if we are going to do it, we go all in. I’m not losing you to an industrial accident after everything we went through,” she said, and I wasn’t expecting this development, but I could see sense in it. Being a zombie in a dinner jacket is not going to impress anyone. So like Caesar and George Washington, we are going to burn our boats.
“I’ll be bringing in a bit from my job. It’s only a couple of hours for a few days a week. They want me to work longer hours, but I’ll put them off. I can grab a few hours of sleep. Just enough so I don’t lose my beauty.”
What a warrior this girl is. I knew I could count on her.
I couldn’t suppress my smile.
“Remember that cuddle you mentioned. It would be a good way to celebrate our new life?” I said, hopefully.
“What about the dishes?” she said.
“Tomorrow’s a day off. I’ll get up and do them in the morning. I may even make you breakfast in bed.”
“I’ll ring mum in the morning and see if she will lend me her sewing machine. If I make some of my gowns it will make our money last longer,” she said as we got up from the table.
I moved towards her and held her in my arms.
My hand slid down her spine and settled on her bottom.
She kissed me, and I lifted her off her feet and carried her into our room.
I held onto her longer than I needed to show her how much strength I had.
I don’t know if she was impressed, but I do know that she called out my name several times before we fell asleep.
How could we not succeed? She loves me, and I love her.