Joe thought she looked just like a porcelain doll.
A long time ago in a second-hand shop in town, he’d seen one in the window. She was so pretty, he had to go in and ask if he could have a closer look. Maybe he could get her for his little sister. They said the doll was French, and had once been very expensive. Her face was made of porcelain, pale and delicate, with a hint of pink on her cheeks and an irresistible little pink mouth. She had blue eyes that closed when you tipped the doll up and laid her on her back, and curled dark lashes. He wished he could have got her for his sister, but she was still too expensive, even second or third hand.
This girl behind the counter had that look about her. She had fluffy blond hair, which she had set into pin curls around her face. It had gotten a little disheveled now, in the heat of the steaming cookhouse. China blue eyes; lashes darkened with mascara and curled, just like the antique doll.
She lowered those lashes when she saw him looking at her. He was going to look away, pretend he hadn’t been staring, but he didn’t. Why should he? He smiled, and she smiled right back. He knew her name too, he heard another guy say ‘Hiya, Vera’.
There was a group of soldiers on the next table, and they had seen her too. Joe heard them plotting and planning. One of them nodded his head at the girls behind the counter.
‘Did you try asking her, the little cockney sparrow?’ one of the soldiers said. He pointed at Vera with his thumb. She was standing by an enormous tea urn talking to her co-worker—a tall pale young woman with her brown hair tied back with a ribbon.
‘You mean the blonde? She told me to get lost,’ the second one said.
‘What about the other one, with the nice…’ The soldier’s hands delineated the nice part.
‘No luck there, she’s a lady,’ said the third.
The first soldier leaned forward in a conspiratorial fashion and spoke low to his three friends.
‘Those two—they finish here about nine o’clock. They always walk home along Lighthouse Lane. They lodge in one of those cottages beyond, right on the headland.’
‘What are you saying, Orville?’
‘There are trees along that lane, and it’s quite secluded. We could be there to meet ’em.’
‘You mean to jump them?’
On the next table, Joe didn’t like the sound of that. He stirred his cocoa and looked in the opposite direction, hoping the men wouldn’t see that he was listening. It was hard to hear the words—he dare not look at their faces—but his concentration was intense.
‘Why not? There are four of us, and two of them. It’d be easy.’
‘I don’t think so, Orville, you can get into big trouble doing something like that.’
‘That one over there, the snooty one, she won’t give me the time of day. She said she only talks to officers.’ In an action that did not match his words, the soldier gave the girl a wave and touched a finger to his cap. She gave a tiny have-to-be-civil smile. ‘The way I look at it they owe us, don’t they? We’re fighting their war for ’em.’
‘It’s our war now.’
‘Look, guys, you do what you like, but I’m not having anything to do with it. I can get me a girl the usual way. I just talk ’em round, you know. No need to do anything stupid.’
‘Oh, yeah? And when did you last get a girl, Tony? In Chicago?’
‘Orville’s right. They’ll send us over soon, I know they will. We could all be dead.’
‘That’s no way to talk.’
‘Who’s in front, that’s what I’m asking. My Dad always said you gotta look around and see who’s in front, who’s gonna take the flack. Here we are, right on the coast, looking out across the sea. There’s nothing and no one between us and the enemy, is there? There isn’t anyone in front to take the bullets. We are the front. We go over, we’ll take the bullets. I’m not facing that without a little something to make me feel better.’ He drained his cocoa as if it was a double whiskey and they got up to leave. ‘I say we jump those girls. Tonight.’
Joe looked at the girl with the china doll face. She was refilling the urn with water. He wondered what her pretty face would look like in the morning.