Love sticks and stays.
Each year someone would nudge her, point out a handsome face in the street, or theatre.
“You’re only twenty five. He wouldn’t want you to mourn forever.”
Even his mother’s grief seemed to wane before hers, smiling when Frank was brought to memory and able to talk about her son with warmth and mirth. Lily smiled weakly and sipped her tea, aware of the minutes until she was alone and could weep.
“It’s…. Lily, it’s been three years.” Mrs Bates eyed the wedding band on Lily’s hand. “Frank would want you happy. Not weeping for him still.”
How could she tell her mother in law how she’d grown so unhappily used to the space on the bed beside her remaining cold and still, that she could not bring herself to think of another man’s warmth enveloping it.
“There is time.” She said at length, and Mrs Bates nodded.
The year dragged on. Snow began to threaten. Lily reached for her darned woollen stockings each morning, the fine nylons tucked away for warmer days. Still her poor heart didn’t heal, stagnating in her chest like sour meat. It was heavy to carry around and wearied her.
With no children to care for, she went through her days in a kind of repetitive haze. Wake. Work. Bathe. Bed. She barely ate. She was a ghost, keeping to a tight beat of streets and buildings. Venturing outside of comfort – to the park when she and Frank had met, or the pub they had visited often, was out of the question.
December began and the darkness was pricked with sharp white lights. Each shop window she passed was full of painful wonder, but she steeled herself to look. At the toys she would never buy for the child she didn’t have. At the pearl-handled razor she would never wrap in delicate paper, eager to see Frank open it on Christmas morning. Tears began to seep out from under her frost-tinged lashes.
“Sadness in winter burns brighter and more sorely than the summer, don’t it?”
Came a voice at her ear.
Lily turned her head; beside her was a woman a little taller than herself; older, perhaps sadder. Her hair was hidden behind a brightly coloured turban.
“I’m sorry.” Lily knew it was a useless thing to say, but didn’t have much choice in the matter – these were the words that poured forth from her lips.
“My Charlie passed at Ypres. The world never seemed quite right after. But I had the baby to occupy me, for a time. I was just a baby myself, of course. Married at sixteen, thought that was life. Soon enough the babe turned twenty one and followed his father to the front. A different front but they’re all the same, no doubt. All the same. Follow the same fate. Passed twenty five years to the date that his father did. God’s funny like that.”
She had been talking almost to herself, to the glass before her.
“How did you know?”
“A widow sees the sadness in another. Lost with loss. I’m parched, would you join me for some tea?”
Sniffing, Lily nodded, and followed the other woman through the growing crowds and creeping darkness, eventually reaching for her hand to keep them from parting.
The cafe was very warm and very bright, but not too crowded. Lily was instructed to sit, and wait as her companion strode to the counter to order.
She returned with a pot of tea and two measly scones with margarine, but for some reason the sight of them made Lily’s mouth water, the first time food had roused her senses in months, years.
Her teacup was filled, and a scone – the bigger – placed before her.
“Eat.” the other woman entreated, stirring several teaspoons of sugar into her own drink, and one into Lily’s for good measure. She watched Lily bite into the soft pastry, speckled with tiny currants.
“I’m Gloria. Glo. Ration book in my purse if you wish to check my identity – Given I dragged you here rather abruptly, all the while pouring out my life story as if you’d asked.”
She smiled, almost shyly. In the harsh, plentiful electric light, Lily could see she was in her late forties, with dyed blond hair curling free of her turban. Her eyes were a startling shade of green, clashing with her very red lips. She was hypnotically beautiful. Lily suddenly felt self-conscious with her hastily pinned hair and unpowdered face. Anxious poison flooded her veins and she shivered. Anxious to be in the presence of such a woman. That’s all it was. All it could be. Awe.
Gloria talked for almost an hour, teasing crumbs of information from Lily’s mouth as if it gave her immense pleasure.
Gloria had moved to the city from Bristol just after her baby was born; Lily had lived there all her life. Gloria worked in a factory that made aspirin, checking the pills were uniform; Lily was a secretary for a very dull accountancy firm. They both enjoyed George Formby and Jimmy Stewart; and Gloria could not contain her jealousy that Lily had seen Al Bowlly perform in person.
“Now there was a handsome man. Such a loss.”
For it always seemed to come back to loss in one way or another. Loss of love; loss of liberty; loss of life. But for the first time, Lily found herself smiling as she spoke of Frank. Feeling happiness at the memory. Happiness in Gloria’s company. Gloria, who was warm and full of life. Gloria, who was funny and clever. Gloria, who was beautiful, with full red lips and sparkling eyes.
“Well, I have taken up far too much of your time.” Gloria said after an hour or so, glancing at her watch and shooing away Lily’s attempts to pass some coins to her to cover the tea and cake.
“Which way are you going?” She went on, rising to button her coat.
“Rowell Street and then down past Player’s Street where the bus stop is.
“I’m headed to Bishopswood, I’ll walk with you.”
The crowds were still thick; instinctively they took one another’s hands to navigate the tiny space afforded to them, but when the others melted away and they were left alone, they did not loosen their grip. Soon the streets grew quieter still, but their bodies were still close. It felt queer and did not feel queer at all.
They walked in silence, until a boy careered down the narrow road and they had to press close to the nearest wall. Lily’s head was swaddled in the scarf around Gloria’s neck; her arm around the warmth of her waist. She felt eerily calm, even as her heart thudded within her chest. She felt Gloria’s lips moving over the top of her head and shivered again.
“One never gets over the fear that every loud noise is a potential threat, even small boys on bicycles!” Her breath was very warm, and seemed to melt into Lily’s scalp. They were reluctant to draw apart, and when Lily lifted her head, she found the small gap between their faces; the tiny world of comfort in a city of chills, her reluctance grew, but along with it grew a shard of bravery, of desire. She raised herself on the tips of her toes and felt the world grow smaller and smaller still, until their dry, chilly lips were fused. She felt Gloria’s life flowing into her; their kiss a small fire, burning brighter and brighter as she felt Gloria’s hands on her hips, and the weight of her breasts against her own.
They had not spoken since the Christmas lights of the high street. It could have been days since they had exchanged words; but the conversation between their bodies was full and flowing, with sweetness and sensuality. A little way along the wall was a gap where a blast had impacted. Still silent but thinking as one, they inched their way along the path until they found the space, and picked their way across the piles of bricks to the deserted garden beyond, pitch-black and endless.
Here they sank to the ground, hungrily reaching for one another. Lily’s hand instinctively moved to the belt of Gloria’s slacks, and the buttons at the waist. Her underthings were silky; a black market bargain and slippery to the touch. Slippery and damp with a rising heat.
As her hands slid clumsily over Gloria’s mound, the older woman had had her own plans – unfastening Lily’s coat and the buttons of the blouse beneath. Her cold hands almost shocked Lily into breaking away; the sensation of her nipples rising to the touch of another was something she thought she would never feel again. When Gloria ducked her head to apply her tongue to the stiff nub of her flesh, Lily thought she might die of the electric pleasure pulsing through her. To experience pleasure at all was magical – to cause and experience it simultaneous felt almost too magical to be a reality. She was overwhelmed by the intense quiet; by the scents rising around her – damp, frozen earth; the sickly strains of Soir de Paris and Gloria’s cunt, making her mouth water the way that unassuming scone had done in the cafe.
Gloria was more exciting, more enticing than anything sweet.
As if working to plans of their own devices, Lily’s fingers manoeuvred around the silky material until they found an opening, and boldly entered, two fingers insinuating between her legs and up and inside her and it felt peculiar yet oddly familiar to do so, and chafe her flesh from both sides, making Gloria mutter and moan against her breast.
Still no words, though there was noise. Wondrous, wet, ecstatic noises, yelps and moans and grunts and aching whimpers. The thump of Lily’s feet against the hard earth as she moved deeper and deeper inside.
“Do you want your release?” Came a voice.
The voice was Lily’s, like her hands, her mouth was under its own erotic spell.
“Yes!” Moaned Gloria, her own mouth biting and sucking and Lily’s neck.
“Ask me nicely. Can you do that?”
The silence reverberated over the ground and against the garden walls.
“Please may I come?” Gloria whispered.
“Charming girl.” Lily growled, crawling down Gloria’s body to devote herself to bringing this beautiful creature off. She caressed the plump flesh lovingly, as if it was her life’s work and her only joy. Her fingers pushed deeper and she thrilled as the grinding of her knees against the rough grass made holes and ladders in her stockings.
The world was aglow, she felt their light could be seen several towns over, a firework of lust and when Gloria began to clench and shake and whimper even louder, Lily leant back and filled her lungs with the wild, sweet air of freedom, love, and beauty. She had never felt so alive, so excited. For a moment she forgot about Gloria panting beneath her and pictured herself alone in a desolate place. Alone, and content.
Then she felt Gloria reaching up to pull her near and kiss the warmth back into her lips; and knew she never wished to be lonely again. Not while there were wonders such as Gloria in the world.