Today's Reading

"Were you really? Remarkable. Although I suppose..." He reaches into the pocket of his coat, brushing my arm with his elbow as he manipulates his fingers inside. He draws out a familiar white envelope. I recognize it because I carried this envelope myself, in a pocket next to my skin, for the entirety of the thirty-nine hours it took to cross the Atlantic, from Nassau to London, in a series of giant, rattling airplanes, before I stamped the upper right corner and posted it from a red metal postbox yesterday evening. And it's funny, isn't it, how a letter you mailed with your own two hands no longer belongs to you, once it begins that fateful drop through the slot. I glimpse my own handwriting, the stamp I placed there myself, and it's like being reunited with an estranged child who has grown into adulthood.

"You suppose?"

Mr. B— taps the edge of the envelope against his knee. "I suppose it depends on what one means by friendship."

"In wartime, friendship can mean anything, can't it?"

"True enough. This note of yours. Quite astonished me this morning, when my secretary delivered it to my desk."

"But you must have known Thorpe was captured."

"Naturally. I take the most anxious interest in my agents, Mrs. Thorpe, and your—ah, your husband—he was one of—well. Well. That is to say, Mr. Thorpe in particular. We took the news very hard. Very hard indeed. Colditz, my God. Poor chap. Awful show."

He takes out a cigarette case, opens the lid, and tilts it toward me. I select one, and he selects another. As he lights the match, he covers the flame with his cupped hand. We sit back against the bench and smoke quietly. The wind on my cheek is cold, and the air tastes of soot, and the sky's blackening by the instant. At first I don't quite understand what's missing, until I realize it's the absence of light. Not a pinprick escapes the windows around us, not a ray of comfort. It's as if we're the only two people alive in London.

"There used to be a railing," says Mr. B—.

"What's that?"

"Around the square gardens. A railing, to keep residents in and everybody else out, you see. They took it away and melted it down for iron."

"I suppose it's more democratic this way."

"I suppose so. Here we are, after all, the two of us. Sitting on this bench, quite without permission."

"And that's what we're fighting for, isn't it? Democracy."

He straightens his back against the bench. "Well, then. Leonora Thorpe. Plucky young American from across the ocean. What are we to do with you?"

"I don't understand."

"Why are you here? You'll forgive me, but London isn't the most peaceful of cities, at the moment. I imagine, wherever you come from—"

"Nassau."

"Yes, Nassau. But you weren't born there, were you?"

"No. I was raised in New York. I arrived in the Bahamas a couple of years ago, to cover the governor and his wife for a magazine."

"A magazine?"

"Metropolitan magazine. Nothing serious, just society news. The American appetite for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is just insatiable."

Mr. B— sucks on his cigarette. "I must confess, it puzzles me. You Americans went to such trouble to rid yourselves of our quaint little monarchy."

"Oh, we like to gossip about them, all right. Just not to let them rule over us and all that."

"I imagine you were well paid?"

"Well enough."

"A plum assignment, Mrs. Thorpe, spending the war in a tropical paradise. Plenty of food, plenty of money. Why didn't you stay there?"

"Why? Isn't it obvious?"

"But what's to be gained by coming to London? Look around you. It's the middle of the afternoon, and it's already dark. Decent food in short supply. The weather—as you see—is simply dreadful, to say nothing of air raids and the threat of invasion. You ought to have stayed in the tropics, nice and safe, to wait for news."
...

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