Far Distant Oxus, Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock
"Listen," said Bridget, "can you hear someone whistling?"
The London fog was heavy with coal dust and ash. It clung to their winter school coats and dragged at their boots, so thick that they could barely see each other in the dark, and the batteries in Frances' torch were almost dead. But from somewhere ahead of them she could hear the jaunty rhythm of a hunting song, the notes sounding so clearly it was almost as if the whistler was riding out on a cold frosty morning, calling his dogs to heel.
"For the sound of his horn brought me from my bed, And the cry of his hounds which he oftime led... Hello," said a man's voice, "is there anyone there?"
Bridget and Frances looked at each other. "Are you lost?" called Bridget. In the fog, her voice sounded strange, hollow and thick.
"I thought I was on Horseguards," said the man. He sounded cheerful, but tired. "They've dug up the Row and planted turnips. But I must have missed the junction."
"Where are you looking for?" shouted Frances. It was impossible to tell from where someone was speaking. The whistler could have been four feet away or on the other side of the road.
"Whitehall," came the reply. "I say, I'd be most grateful if - good heavens."
"Ouch!" said Frances, stumbling backwards. The torch wavered, and in its light she could see a tall, dark man in an battered uniform. He looked very thin and stick like against the fog, but he had an impatient, weary smile.
"I'm most awfully sorry," he said, "I didn't mean to run into you. Regular pea souper."
Bridget said. "Maurice!"
For a moment, she thought she was mistaken. The whistler took a step backwards. He was already almost hidden in the fog, yet she could see that his shoulders were hunched and his head up.
"Don't you recognise us?" she asked. "It's Bridget. And Francis. The Hunterlys."
Fog curled between them.
"From Dartmoor," said Bridget. "Don't you remember us?" For a moment, she thought the man was going to fade into the night.
Then Maurice said, "Of course. Bridget and Frances." He didn't sound at all surprised. Then he said, "I'm looking for the War Office. I'm sure it's around here somewhere."
"You must have missed the junction at Charing Cross," said Bridget.
"Oh well," said Maurice. "I don't suppose you know how to get there, do you? Only, this can't wait."
He sounded awfully tired. Bridget said doubtfully, "Are you sure?" But at the same time, she was thinking that Maurice must be carrying secret dispatches. Blueprints, or stolen papers, photographs from Poland or diaries from France.
"There was a man with a bucket of sand who told me to go this way," said Maurice.
Frances said, "It's not far. We'll take you there."
"That's awfully kind of you," said Maurice, just as if they'd just met.
They took him down the street and across Charing Cross, waiting for a car to go by before they dared turn down Whitehall, just to be sure they were in the right place. Maurice seemed to be very tired. He asked them twice if their parents were well, but did not ask why they were both in London, and when they delivered him up to the policeman standing outside the War Office he shook their hands goodbye.
"It's almost as if he didn't recognise us," said Frances.
"I think he was worried about the war," said Bridget. "Did you see his uniform? One of his sleeves was torn, and there was a stain on his trousers."
"We're going to wait for him, aren't we?" said Frances.
"Of course," said Bridget.
But it was an hour before they heard the policeman's quiet, "Good night, Sir," and the sound of footsteps.
"Maurice?" called Frances. "Maurice, it's us."
Maurice came out of the fog. He was pulling off his cap. "Well, so that's done," he said, and then he frowned. "What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you," said Bridget.
"What?" said Maurice. He ran his hand over his face. Then he said. "I thought... Bridget. Frances. What are you doing here?"
"Staying with Jennifer," said Francis. "It's the school holidays. Didn't you know?"
"No," said Maurice.
"Have you got somewhere to stay?" asked Bridget. She had seen how tired Maurice looked. "It'd be a bit of a squeeze. Anthony's school broke up early. But you can come and stay with us. It's not far."
"I'd love to," said Maurice. "I couldn't think of anything I'd like better."
But he didn't start walking until Bridget caught hold of his sleeve and pulled. Frances said, "Which regiment are you in? When did you join up? Did you know Antony's going to be in the Guards as soon as he's old enough? And Peter's joined the RAF. He's doing something top secret with engines, he can't say where he is, but all his letters are postmarked Helensburgh."
"Frances," said Bridget.
"It's O.K.," said Maurice. "I've already forgotten." His voice dragged a little.
"Bridget's joining the WRNS," said Frances.
"Good for you," said Maurice.
They rounded the corner to the mews. "And I'm going to be a nurse," said Frances, "as soon as I leave school."
"That's good," said Maurice. "Did you get into the second XI?"
"First," said Frances.
"She did very well," Bridget said loyally, although hockey seemed a little unreal when they were escorting the gallant despatch rider to his billet, his faithful steed limping behind them. She nearly asked Maurice how Dragonfly was, and then remembered that his black pony had been turned out with Mr. Fludd's Dartmoors. It made her happy to think of Dragonfly leading his herd across the moors, although she hoped that Mr. Fludd had brought the ponies in for the winter.
They waved at the doorman and went up the stairs. The stairwell was so dark it was almost a shock when they opened the door to the flat and the lights were on, the glass of Mr Cleverton's bookcases gleaming and his carpets brightly patterned.
"Jennifer!" called Frances. "Anthony!"
"What is it?" asked Jennifer, coming to the parlour door. She'd cut her hair short, and it was ruffled, as it often was when she was struggling with sums. Jennifer was studying for her university entrance examination, although Frances was still trying to persuade her to join the Red Cross. "Is it Peter? Has he -"
"Hello," said Maurice.
Jennifer burst into tears. "I'm not really crying," she said, "it's just that - oh, Maurice."
Tactfully, Bridget and Frances went into the parlour, and in a moment or two Maurice and Jennifer came into join them. Jennifer was still sniffing a little, but she was smiling.
"Where's Anthony?" asked Frances.
"In the bath," said Jennifer. "He'll be finished soon. There should be enough hot water, we left the boiler on for you."
"Mondays are bath night," said Frances to Maurice. "Would you like to go next? I'm sure we can find you some towels, and Anthony can lend you his razor."
"Anthony can what?" asked Anthony from the doorway, where he was buried in several large towels and Mr Cleverton's dressing gown. Then he looked up. "Oh, Maurice," he said. "Good to see you. Borrow anything you like."
So Maurice went and had a bath, while everyone else sorted out rugs and blankets and pillows. Jennifer put the saucepan on the hob to make cocoa, while Bridget and Frances investigated the pantry. "It's a jolly good job we brought those sardines," said Bridget, "But I wish we had some cake."
Jennifer looked up. "We've got the Christmas pudding," she said. "I'm sure Annie won't mind, as long as we save one for Peter. She made three little ones, just in case. Last year's wasn't too bad at all."
"I miss prunes," said Frances.
"I miss cream," said Bridget, and poked dispiritedly at the margarine with a butter knife. "It always smells of fish oil," she said.
"We'd better get it started now," Anthony said practically, "if we're not going to have pudding for breakfast. And how much sugar have we got for the cocoa?"
There was just enough sugar for three quarters of a teaspoon each, but the milk was fresh. They left the Christmas pudding steaming on the stove and trooped through to the parlour with the bread and toasting forks, and when Maurice came back, they were sitting in front of the fire making sardines on toast. In a while, there was Christmas pudding, although no cream. Maurice said it was much better than army rations. He said his kit was somewhere on an airfield, and he was sure the RAF would get it to him tomorrow. He said he was very grateful for the soap. Then he fell asleep on the couch with his plate still in his hand, and Bridget said doubtfully, "Ought we to wake him up?"
"I'll sleep in here," said Anthony. They brought in the rugs and pillows, and although Maurice woke up when Frances caught her pillow on the lampshade, he said he was perfectly comfortable on the floor. He and Anthony wrapped themselves up like parcels, and everyone said goodnight.
When Jennifer had turned the light out, Anthony whispered "It's almost like camping out."
"Almost," said Maurice.
"We could go back," said Anthony. "After the war. Mrs Fludd sends Mummy eggs sometimes." He wondered if bivouacs in the army were the same as their camps on Dartmoor. Maurice had always been able to sleep through anything. But it seemed unbearably childish to ask. He'd find out, if the war carried on long enough.
Maurice was looking at the fire.
"I think they ate Sohrab," said Anthony. He hadn't been able to say that to his sisters or Jennifer.
"He's a pig," said Maurice. "It's what he's for."
"I know," Anthony said.
The fire hissed. Rain in the chimney. Anthony could hear the murmur of the girls talking in Bridget's bedroom.
"I saw a lammergeier, " Maurice said suddenly. He was looking at the fire, but he was twisting the fringe of the rug in his fingers, over and over again. "It was a long way off, but... "
One of the logs collapsed, spitting sparks up into the chimney.
Anthony waited, but Maurice said nothing else. Flickering, a single flame hissed from the cinders, flared, and guttered out.